Real Madrid, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, or Manchester City? The transfer rumour mill about the future of Africa’s most prized star striker rumbles on, but this month Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (PEA) will focus solely on achieving success with Gabon at the African Cup of Nations on home soil.
What constitutes success for the hosts is a whole other matter – can the Dortmund striker lead Gabon beyond the quarter-finals? A fantasy, maybe, but one that will preoccupy all the fans of Les Panthères, clad in yellow and blue, for the next couple of weeks.
Aubameyang’s tournament had been a resounding success with three goals in the group phase but he fumbled the decisive penalty against Mali.
In 2012, Gabon co-hosted the tournament with Equatorial Guinea, but the hosts were left heartbroken in the quarter-finals, a match decided on penalties. Aubameyang’s tournament had been a resounding success with three goals in the group phase, against Tunisia, Morocco and Niger respectively – but he fumbled the decisive penalty against Mali.
Gabon were out, yet again in the quarter-finals, and the striker was devastated. He walked back to the halfway line and collapsed in tears. His father ran onto the pitch and escorted his son off, with the remaining fans applauding Aubameyang. Pierre François Aubameyang told his son to cry and externalise his feelings of hurt.
Aubameyang Sr understood his son’s torment perfectly well – the cruelty and chance element of the shoot-out.
After all, Aubameyang Sr understood his son’s torment perfectly well – the cruelty and chance element of the shoot-out. In 1996, the former had captained Gabon at the African Cup of Nations in South Africa. Nigeria withdrew from the tournament and so a 2-0 victory over Zaire sufficed to progress from group C for ‘Yaya’ Aubameyang’s team, but, in the quarter-finals Gabon were knocked out by Tunisia – on penalties.
Aubameyang Sr has always played a key role in Pierre-Emerick’s development. In fact, Pierre-Emerick may have never played for Gabon were it not for his father, who taught him the finer points of the game. That transfer of sporting knowledge translated into the Dortmund striker’s allegiance to Gabon.
Like his father, Aubameyang enjoyed his formative years in French football, playing at Dijon, Lille, Monaco and Saint-Etienne in a succession of loan deals from parent club AC Milan. In north Italy PEA never broke through, facing competition from big-name strikers Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato, Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko.
His father’s career faded, with a stint at Colombian club Atlético Junior, but, as soon as PEA signed for Saint-Etienne his potential became clear. His career did take a flight. Born and bred in the town of Laval in Western France, Aubameyang could have chosen to represent France. He made a friendly appearance for France U21 in February 2009, but a month later he opted to represent Gabon. The reason? He cited his father’s 80-cap association with the Panthers. Furthermore, he had a burning desire to become an African great.
The African Cup of Nations provides him with another chance to enhance his reputation as Africa’s deadliest striker.
At Dortmund, he has proven to be well on his way to greatness, with his attacking impetus and prolific goal-scoring. The African Cup of Nations provides him with another chance to enhance his reputation as Africa’s deadliest striker. It also offers a chance of redemption after the painful elimination five years ago. But that may not be easy.
Gabon are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, placed 108th on the FIFA-ranking, squeezed between Jordan and New Zealand. Home advantage always counts, with hosts having won the African Cup of Nations Cup eleven times out of 31, but the Panthers remain a limited outfit, so much so that the suggestion of a one-man team is not far of the truth.
Gabon have a lack of depth and struggle in defence.
Gabon have a lack of depth and struggle in defence. Goalkeeper Didier Ovono and midfielder Didier N’Dong will provide Gabon with much-needed experience, but much of the host’s hopes will rest on the shoulders of Aubameyang.
Guinea-Bissau, debutants at the finals and Gabon’s opponents in the opening match of the tournament, have revealed that they won’t apply a specific plan to contain the dangers that Aubameyang and his game will present. It’s a risky strategy by the underdogs. Backed by vociferous fans in Libreville, the striker may well enjoy his freedom and kickstart a fine tournament for hosts.