By rights, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should be the talk of European football right now.
With Borussia Dortmund in a difficult spot under manager Peter Bosz – 6th in the Bundesliga after a seven-game winless run and out of the Champions League at the group stage – it feels as if the Westfalenstadion club have squandered much of their negotiating hand when it comes to the Gabonese striker.
Now 28, at the peak of his powers, Aubameyang almost certainly feels that his ambitions go further than another middling season with Dortmund. His relationship with the club has seen better days – not only did he face an internal suspension for alleged lateness and lapses of discipline in mid November, he was sent off as Dortmund blew a four-goal lead to draw 4-4 with Schalke in the Revierderby soon afterwards.
“He ruined everything,” Bosz said after the final whistle. Those words could well be the epitaph to Aubameyang’s Dortmund career – heavily linked with a January move to Liverpool or Chelsea, the rangy forward may well have stood in the shadow of the ‘Yellow Wall’ for the final time.
Aubameyang’s story begins in the scenic town of Laval in north-western France. It was there that Pierre Jnr was born in 1989 and that his father made the most appearances for any one football club.
Pierre Francois Aubameyang was a journeyman defender who played for Toulouse, Le Havre and OGC Nice in his prime, with his travels also taking him to Colombia, Italy and back to his home nation of Gabon. It was during Pierre Snr’s seven-year stretch with Stade Lavallois that Pierre-Emerick arrived on the scene, and Laval would serve as the picturesque backdrop to much of his childhood.
Pierre-Emerick’s father was always destined to have a big influence on his career. As well as steeping his sons in the lore of football from an early age, Pierre Snr took them with him when he later became a scout for AC Milan.
Pierre-Emerick and his brothers Catilina and Willy would all feature for the Milan youth teams, though between them they only earned a modest handful of senior appearances. It would be fair to say that Pierre-Emerick started his life in football with his foot in the door, granted the opportunity to learn his game with one of Europe’s most storied teams.
Family contacts can only get a player so far, however. Neither Catalina nor Willy were destined for glittering careers, with both pinballing between Europe’s lower leagues and Gabonese sides. Pierre-Emerick was perhaps the least rated of the brothers for a time and was supposedly nicknamed “the boy with the square feet”, with his coaches at Milan deciding to ship him out on loan in search of first-team experience. He had mixed stints with Dijon, Lille and Monaco, before his fourth and final loan spell took him to Saint-Etienne.
It was at Saint-Etienne, coached by former Ligue 1 mainstay Christophe Galtier, that Aubameyang finally found his stride. He credits Galtier’s coaching with helping him to unleash his striker’s instincts, which coupled with his galloping pace helped him to establish a reputation as one of the most dangerous forwards in France. Having joined Les Verts permanently in 2011 – leaving behind the glittering confines of the San Siro without an appearance for the senior side – Aubameyang gradually built up his goalscoring momentum. By the time he left for Dortmund two years later, he had scored 41 senior goals.
Even in those early days, Aubameyang never lacked for confidence. He made headlines across Europe in the warm-up of one particular match against Lyon, this when he wore a £2,500 pair of boots encrusted with Swarovski crystals.
Those crystal boots weren’t the only indicators that Aubameyang had a taste for ostentation. As well as his eye-catching feats in front of goal, his celebrations became a hallmark of the Bundesliga.
Not only did he have a penchant for pulling off acrobatic forward flips after scoring, he celebrated a goal against Bayern Munich in the 2014 German Super Cup final by donning a Spider Man mask which he had kept hidden in his sock. He would later reinvent the celebration alongside friend and teammate Marco Reus, slipping on a Batman mask as Reus played the part of Robin.
The symbolism was not lost on Dortmund fans: Aubameyang was ready to take on the mantle of a real-life superhero at the Westfalenstadion. Unlike Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, however, Aubameyang’s disguises were more a way of attracting attention to himself than hiding his identity.
Ostentation isn’t for everyone, and it’s little surprise that Aubameyang has become a polarising figure in the Bundesliga. An unashamed worshiper at the altar of Instagram, he has become the prime antagonist for Germany’s answer to ‘proper football men’ and traditionalists everywhere.
Flash or not, the simple fact is that Aubameyang has the numbers to back up his celebrity. His goalscoring record since he joined Dortmund has been nothing short of phenomenal: he has 137 goals in 208 appearances for BVB, scoring 40 goals in all competitions last season from 46 appearances. His 31 Bundesliga strikes were enough to secure his status as the league’s top-scorer, making him the first man to score over 30 goals in the German top flight since Dieter Muller in the late seventies.
Throw in 23 goals in 56 appearances for Gabon – a joint all-time record along with Theodore Nguema – and a picture emerges of a striker who can score at every level. From domestic and European competitions to international fixtures and the Africa Cup of Nations, Aubameyang is versatile enough to thrive in different circumstances and with very different teams.
Despite all that, the reaction to a possible transfer for Aubameyang has been surprisingly understated. It was the same in the summer, even though Aubameyang made it clear he could leave and Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke seemed to concede that the club would listen to offers over £63million. There were rumours of Real Madrid, PSG and Barcelona making approaches, but in the end Europe’s super clubs went with different options up front. In an underwhelming turn of events, Aubameyang was offered a move to the Chinese Super League only to later label the talks “a disaster”.
So why has a move for one of Europe’s most prolific forwards been treated with relatively little fanfare? Aubameyang’s overall record at Dortmund of well over one goal in two games is impressive, but for the past two seasons at least he has been scoring at a truly elite rate. He has 17 goals in 19 appearances already this season, the same number that Lionel Messi has from 21 outings. Why, despite his incredible numbers, does it feel as if Aubameyang is somehow underappreciated?
The answer is perhaps partly down to Dortmund and partly down to Aubameyang himself. When Aubameyang joined BVB in the aftermath of their heartbreaking Champions League final defeat to Bayern, he could not have known they were a team on the wane. Having won the Bundesliga twice in the previous three seasons, upstart Dortmund were about to be crushed by a brutal backlash from Bavaria. As Bayern ran away with a string of consecutive titles, the Jurgen Klopp era sagged and then collapsed as Aubameyang found himself playing for a much-changed team.
As such, regardless of his goalscoring heroics, Aubameyang has only won three major honours with Dortmund: one DFB-Pokal and two Super Cups in 2013 and ‘14. If he is not a face many associate with silverware, nor does have many chances for glory at international level: Gabon are 93rd in the FIFA World Rankings and unlikely to qualify for a World Cup any time soon despite the best efforts of the 2015 African Footballer of the Year.
For his own part, Aubameyang’s personal ostentation perhaps counts against him at times. Actually said to be relaxed and personable behind the scenes, his lavish celebrations and lifestyle were always going to foster accusations of arrogance when coupled with intermittent ill-discipline. Though moralising over a footballer’s handling of celebrity is one of the most futile exercises in punditry, potential suitors might nonetheless worry that a team could be subsumed into Brand Aubameyang.
Case in point: he ended up in hot water last season after again reinventing his mask celebration, but this time covering his face with the emblem of a bespoke Nike promotional campaign (Dortmund are sponsored by Puma).
Aubameyang is an out-and-out striker, and not necessarily an all-round creative who can comprise multiple roles at once. He is more of a poacher than a virtuoso, and when he’s struggling for form the old square feet sometimes come out to play.
Luckily for Aubameyang, he’s very rarely struggled for form over the past few years in the Bundesliga. He is without doubt one of Europe’s most effective strikers, and those clubs who have dawdled over signing him from Dortmund may still rue the day.