“I apologised to him after my goal, and he told me that I should score two more. I said okay!”
As it happened, Aubameyang would go one better and score three more that day as his Borussia Dortmund side mercilessly crushed Hamburg 5-2. After serving a suspension for breaching club regulations, the forward announced his return to the side in typically explosive fashion.
The striker is used to dealing in extremities. From donning the iconic Rossoneri stripes, playing in a park in Newcastle, struggling to make the grade in France’s second tier and thriving in the upper echelons of European football, this is a player whose journey to the top has been far from linear.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was born in Laval, a quaint French town situated 300 kilometres from Paris. Raised by a Spanish mother and Gabonese father, it was the latter who originally instilled a passion for football in the youngster. Having played out a modest club career himself, his dad was an ex-Gabon international, capped 80 times and famously helped his nation to the 1996 African Cup of Nations quarter-finals.
Upon retirement, he took up the position of technical scout at AC Milan. By this point, he had also fathered three sons and was eager to help them make a smooth transition from the amateur to the professional game. The eldest, Catilina, was the first to up sticks and move to the Lombardy outfit, swiftly followed by middle child Willy and finally Pierre-Emerick himself.
Having spent time in numerous French academies, Aubameyang jumped at the prospect to follow in his elder’s footsteps by joining the seven-time European champions. Life in Italy started buoyantly and the striker quickly became an integral part of the Primavera side. His blistering pace was evident for all to see and was put to devastating effect during a tournament in Malaysia. I Rossoneri finished the 16-team competition in fourth as Aubameyang was awarded the Roberto Bettega Trophy – given to the top scorer – for his seven goals in just six games.
After discussions between Milan and his father, both decided the best course of action was to send the budding adolescent on loan to gain some invaluable first-team experience. This took Aubameyang back to his native France, representing Dijon FCO. The move seemed a good fit; Aubameyang Snr. was friends with manager Faruk Hadžibegić from their time playing together at Toulouse and his Ligue 2 side presented an ideal platform for the prospective striker to further develop.
As Aubameyang attempted to cut the mustard (sorry) at Dijon, Hadžibegić watched studiously from the sidelines. “He was only 19 when he arrived in Dijon, but already at that age his speed and sense of purpose was interesting,” he recalled when speaking to Jeune Afrique. His first professional goal came against Tours in a scrappy 2-1 win and he went on to finish the campaign with a respectable 10 in all competitions.
His impressive displays led to international call-ups by Italy’s under-19 side, then a month later, France’s under-21s. Gabon had always been the nation of Aubameyang’s heart, however. The country was in his ancestral blood as well as in ink across his back via a tattoo of Africa.Naturally, Gabon came calling and Aubameyang never looked back. In 2009, he scored on his debut versus Morocco, a promising sign of what was to come.
The next season saw the precocious international again out on loan, this time with Lille. The step-up in playing standard to Ligue 1 was challenging, however the move had again been thoroughly calibrated by his employers. Lille were a small team full of effervescent young talent. The squad orientated around its youth-centric approach, boasting the likes of Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Mathieu Debuchy. Moreover, boss Rudi García gave his players license to attack with freedom; it was the perfect environment for the striker to be nurtured.
Unfortunately, the heightened expectation of a club longing for European ventures appeared too much for him to handle. A measly two goals ended Aubameyang’s time in the French municipal and the player headed back to Italy with his confidence sufficiently knocked. Milan though – still assured of their forward’s qualities – decided to have a second crack of the whip and sent him on-loan to Ligue 1 again, this time to Monaco.
Alas, Aubameyang once more came up short, another two-goal spell bringing about a premature conclusion to life on the south coast. The club – itself in disarray – were consequently relegated that year with Aubameyang jumping ship in January to join Saint-Étienne.
At Les Verts, it seemed the Gabonese international had finally found a home. His loan move was promptly made permanent and the settled striker began to exemplify just how lethal he could be. His first senior hat-trick came in 2012 against Lorient as Aubameyang finally began to score freely, just as he had done for Milan’s Primavera.
He also started to overtly emanate his inner-extravagance, opting to warm up for a game against Olympique Lyonnais in diamond-encrusted boots, reportedly worth €3,000 – a taste for lavish lifestyle ostensibly inherited from his brief stint in Monaco’s opulent principality. Despite this, he was consistently reminded of his humble beginnings, not least when Gabon played a friendly in a park in Newcastle ahead of their international fixture at St James’ Park.
With the player’s endeavours both on and off the pitch proving prosperous, interest in the 23-year-old mounted. He had managed to replicate his father’s achievement 16 years previously by helping Gabon to a quarter-final finish at the 2012 African Cup of Nations and his fruitful period at Saint-Étienne was crowned with victory in the 2013 Coupe de la Ligue final. Strike partner Brandão’s solo effort against Stade Rennais was enough to clinch the first major silverware of Aubameyang’s career.
The summer of 2013 saw a multitude of offers flood in for the hot prospect. Interest from Russia and England was eventually bested by Germany as he duly signed for Borussia Dortmund in a deal worth €13 million. He left Les Verts a champion and with Chairman Bernard Caïazzo’s blessing, who stated: “He [Aubameyang] is a humble boy, available and very professional. He received much more lucrative offers than Dortmund, but rather than privilege the financial aspect, he opted for an intelligent career choice.”
Intelligent it was. Dortmund were amid a phenomenal era under the enigmatic stewardship of Jürgen Klopp. The club had won consecutive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and were coming off the back of a Champions League final with domestic rivals Bayern Munich. As Aubameyang knew all too well by now, though, things don’t always work out the way they should.
After hitting a hat-trick on his league debut against Augsburg, he struggled as Klopp sought to accommodate both him and Polish international Robert Lewandowski, resulting in the striker being deployed out wide. It made sense given his electric pace but a lack of defensive discipline soon led the manager to bench him. The future looked bleak, and when Lewandowski was sold to Die Roten, Dortmund decided to sign Torino’s Ciro Immobile for €18.5 million.
The previous year’s Serie A top scorer seemed a shoo-in to succeed, yet after being handed multiple chances, the forward failed to impress. In a disastrous season where Dortmund flirted dangerously with relegation, Aubameyang opportunely took his chance and netted 11 goals in the last 15 Bundesliga matches to steer Die Schwarzgelben into a comfortable seventh-placed finish.
Klopp duly resigned and was replaced by Thomas Tuchel. For all the influential footballers, past and present, in Aubameyang’s career, it was the revolutionary laptop manager in Tuchel who elevated the player to new heights.
Immediately placed centrally – both figuratively and literally – in Tuchel’s plans, the Gabonese star picked up the 2015/16 campaign where he had left the last. His sensational return of 39 goals from 49 appearances showcased his manager’s well-founded faith. With every goal coming inside the 18-yeard-box, Aubameyang confessed he had been meticulously studying the movements of his idols Hernán Crespo and Ronaldo in the off-season to best hone his craft.
After collecting the individual awards of African and Bundesliga Player of the Year, he jubilantly stated: “It was Thomas Tuchel’s first season as coach and I was played centrally always. The whole team had a great year, one that I enjoyed a lot. Our style has changed a bit, from trying to score within five seconds to a more calm, and in some regard more educated style of play. We try to find the right moment – and then we explode.”
His goal celebrations became talking points, too. Seen sporting both Batman and Spiderman masks, as well as performing the odd front or backflip, one may assume they were just another part of the player’s exuberant persona. After all, this was a man parading haircuts that would even make Paul Pogba blush. The truth, however, is far more sentimental. The masks are for his son Curtys who idolises both superheroes, whilst the acrobatics pay homage to Real Madrid legend Hugo Sánchez, his late grandfather’s favourite player.
Last season saw Aubameyang become a true world-class entity. He recorded a staggering 40 goals in 46 games, culminating in being awarded the Torjägerkanone and Dortmund clinching the DFB-Pokal. His strikes including the opener in the Ruhr derby, two versus Real Madrid, a hat-trick against Benfica which saw BVB progress to the Champions League quarter-finals, and the aforementioned four he racked up against Hamburg.
With his formative barren loans a far cry from the player you see today, Aubameyang’s transformation from a savvy speed merchant into an incalculably clinical predator speaks volumes to the tireless diligence put in behind the scenes. Now linked with numerous multi-million euro transfers away from the Westfalenstadion, it’s little more than his aptitude merits.
Many fans the world over will no doubt marvel at the thought of celebrating his foray of goals, whilst marketing executives are left salivating at the commercial prospect of seeing Aubameyang’s diamond earrings and bleach blond patches of hair in their club’s strip. As for the man himself, he’ll continue to work hard and live an unassuming quiet life, his only marvelling coming from the comic books he reads to his son.