Words by Solace Chukwu
The 2000s were reigned over by the larger-than-life duo of Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba, completely contrasting in style but similarly emblematic for their national teams. It could even be argued that both Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire have not yet been weaned off their influences, though the Elephants ended their AFCON hoodoo in a cathartic penalty shootout win over Ghana in 2015.
While they were doing their best to exorcise their ‘Drogtergeist’, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang must have watched on ruefully, wondering what might have been. Gabon came into the Cup of Nations as dark-horses, stocked with talent in different zones: Bruno Ecuele Manga leading the defence, Andre Biyogo Poko’s energy patrolling midfield, and, in Aubameyang, Africa’s in-form striker.
They however failed to progress beyond the group, and while the Dortmund striker fittingly opened their account, that was as good as it got in Equatorial Guinea. It is becoming something of a worrying theme: the continent’s standout forward at any given point always seems to find the AFCON an impossible ask.
Of course, having matured from an inconsistent wide player, heavily reliant on explosive pace into arguably the most lethal centre-forward not-named-Robert-Lewandowski, Auba would be miffed at the notion that anything is impossible. Still only 26, the sky is, without question, the limit for the sprightly Panther.
Going by the raw numbers, the former St Etienne man clearly made a quantum leap in 2015. He hit a stunning 41 goals in all competitions in the calendar year, more than double his total from 2014: 16. He has benefitted from an increasingly permanent positioning in a central striking role, having only filled in there sporadically before.
Borussia Dortmund’s 2014/2015 season was hardly their finest; a shaky start saw them inside the Bundesliga relegation zone almost midway through the campaign. However, under Jurgen Klopp, they rallied impressively to salvage a European place. At the forefront of this surge was Aubameyang, now utilised as a centre-forward, netting 11 times in the second half of the season.
As teams evolved to give BVB less space to attack into, he has had to learn to vary his movement, receiving the ball in the channels and taking opponents on as well as playing with his back to goal. In a sense, for he and Dortmund, it was truly ‘echte liebe’; true love, hard and at first sight—the worries earlier in his career about his effort and decision-making have evaporated under the heat of die Schwarzgelben’s high-octane style.
Having elected to represent Gabon internationally, there is the danger that he may perpetuate the trend of top strikers failing to win AFCON. The Panthers are hardly one of Africa’s footballing powerhouses but perhaps, with Aubameyang at the tip, they can upset the odds.
He may not have the forceful personality of Eto’o and Drogba before him but, in a sense, that is a good thing: while those two needed to rule over squads brimming with talented egos, a more fraternal, egalitarian dressing room will suit the minnows of Gabon just fine.
Highlight of the Year: Bundesliga scoring record
Having ended 2014/2015 on a high, Aubameyang showed it was no flash in the pan and began 2015/2016 in similar vein. In so doing, he became the first player ever to score in all of the opening eight games of a Bundesliga season, getting new boss Thomas Tuchel off to a flying start in Westphalia.