Men Of The Year Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang rocks.
Whether playing table football or the real thing, Dortmund's Gabonese hotshot Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang just can't stop scoring. No wonder he's fast becoming one of the world's best strikers.
It’s impossible not to be a fan of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. There’s just something loveable about him – even when he’s breaking the rules. Less than 24 hours before FFT is due to sit down with the 27-year-old forward and crown him one of our Men of the Year, there’s an almighty problem. Aubameyang is dropped from Borussia Dortmund’s squad for their Champions League tie with Sporting Lisbon. Our interview, then, is seemingly cancelled. Still, FFT is already in Germany, so the following morning, we – together with what appears to be a significant chunk of the country’s fourth estate – turn up at Dortmund’s training ground, hoping for the best. And sure enough, Aubameyang emerges into the car park and onto the training pitch without a care in the world, joking with his team-mates and coaches. He takes a full part in training, constantly smiling and even staying behind for extra shooting practice on this crisp, overcast November morning. The previous night’s storm in a teacup has already been consigned to ancient history. Let’s move on. As German journalists sidle away, Aubameyang greets FFT on the other side of the training ground with a fingers-up handshake, a shoulder bump and a beaming grin that’s nearly as shimmering as the silver-studded trainers the 2015 African Footballer of the Year designed and is now wearing. They come complete with ‘PEA’ initials, naturally. Wrapped up wearing a black beanie and fake fur-lined hoodie, he immediately is drawn to the table football setup in the corner of the room. “Oh, amazing!” Aubameyang says. “Fancy a game?” Maybe later. First, we need to talk about his 2016. About last season’s incredible 39 goals in just 49 games. About the transformation from being a jet-heeled yet profligate winger into one of Europe’s most lethal strikers. And, most importantly, about a love for Borussia Dortmund. And Batman.
The 2015-16 season was your best in front of goal. What changed? We tried something new, because it was Thomas Tuchel’s first season as the coach [above]. I played centrally always. The whole team had a great year – one I enjoyed a lot. It is easy to score goals when you have got so many good players around you.
Was there any part of your game that you worked harder on to try and improve from last season?
I’ve worked really hard on getting into the penalty box more and being much closer to the goal, which has brought real benefits to my game. It’s definitely helped to improve my goalscoring. I feel proud to have had such a good year last season, as before I arrived here a lot of people were questioning whether I could ever play as a striker – they thought I was a guy who could only run down the wing very fast. I stay behind after each training session to improve myself. It’s all part of the job. If you want to score goals, you have to keep practising. Practice makes perfect!
What would represent a good 2016-17 season for Borussia Dortmund?
Achieving Champions League football is the minimum requirement and the most important thing for this club. Beyond that, we want to win a trophy, too – maybe the German Cup, because we’ve reached the last three finals but haven’t won one, so that is a big motivation for us all.
What about the Bundesliga? Can you catch Bayern Munich?
We know that is going to be very tough, what with being a few points behind after three months of the season, but we hope so. First and foremost, we have to focus on what we’re doing and not worry about what Bayern Munich are doing.
You have started well in the Champions League…
We have, and we are very happy with how things are going in Europe. Hopefully the draw in the knockout stages will be kind to us. It’s great to be back in the Champions League, facing players such as Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s a monster – the best in the world. He was incredible at the Euros and gave so much for his country to win the tournament. It was the same with the winning penalty in the Champions League final.
Can you describe Thomas Tuchel as a coach?
He cares about the small details. He’s a perfectionist and he wants his players to be the same as well. I’m the same, so we’re a pretty good mix for each other.
Did you expect things to work out quite as well as they have since you signed for Dortmund?
I was always sure it was the right choice for me. My first season was solid, if unspectacular, so maybe I would have preferred it not to be so hard at the beginning, but I have worked very hard to get to this point and I want to get even better now. How long will I be at Dortmund? I don’t know – you never know in football. What I do know is that I am very happy here, with the fans and everybody at the club. For the moment I’m here, with a long contract, and I’m really happy and I want to give my best for this great club.
What type of goal do you like scoring the most?
Spectacular ones, of course! [ Laughs] Like the one against Gabala last October in the Europa League – I exchanged passes with Marco Reus, then shot straight into the top corner. Brilliant! But seriously, I really like going one-on-one with the keeper and chipping the ball over them. I am always looking and waiting for the goalkeeper to go to ground – then I do it. My father spoke many times with me about doing this more. I would always shoot along the floor, but he told me to be more aware of what the keeper is doing, and chip it. This is something I’ve been working really hard at. I’m now very comfortable doing this, and it’s a great feeling when it comes off. It isn’t just Aubameyang’s dad, Pierre – an 80-cap Gabon defender who used to work for AC Milan as a scout – who has encouraged his son to add the chip to a rapidly expanding armoury. Half an hour before sitting down with FourFourTwo, Aubameyang Jr had played a game with vice-captain Marco Reus to bring a close to their extended training session. For 10 minutes, Borussia Dortmund’s principal masters of attacking destruction cleared away the 40 or so accumulated footballs by chipping them into the other’s sack. They were the final two players to head back to the dressing room, having greeted each of the successful attempts with jubilant cheers. Aubameyang throws back his head and laughs when we suggest that the pair’s rather elaborate game of Catch could be improving his goalscoring technique, “Yeah, why not?!” he says. “It’s good fun.” Born just 19 days apart in 1989 – Reus in Dortmund on May 31 and Aubameyang in Laval, France, on June 18 – BVB’s two biggest stars enjoy a close relationship. Reus, who had been a part of the club’s youth system for a decade before leaving aged 17, returned to the Westfalenstadion from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2012, with Aubameyang arriving from Saint-Etienne a year later, and the Dortmund native helped the new signing to adapt to life there. Extravagance does not go down well in the Ruhr valley, an area that wears its working-class roots as a badge of honour. So it was necessary for Reus to cool Aubameyang’s passion for sports cars and propensity to wear €4,000 Swarovski crystal-encrusted boots upon his £10 million move. The tide was already turning for the French-born Gabonese international after a so-so first season at the club, but his Batman and Robin goal celebration with Reus after opening the scoring in February 2015’s Ruhr derby win against rivals Schalke helped ensure his legend. The two players regularly socialise together, and Reus has since appeared in a music video called Aubameyang, made by the latter’s brother Felix (AKA Ghost St). “We’re not just passing through,” they sing. “We want to go down in history.” Aubameyang was moved from the wing to a central striking position by Jurgen Klopp after his first season, but he has definitively flowered under Tuchel since the arrival of Klopp’s successor in 2015, thriving under the responsibility of spearheading Dortmund’s attack in the absence of Bayern-bound Robert Lewandowski. Aubameyang is able to score any type of goal. The trademark dink over an onrushing keeper or the hat-trick against Augsburg last season may give him the most pleasure due to the amount of work that has gone into them – he talks about the latter as “my best all-round performance... I was clinical” – but he’s not averse to the spectacular long-range effort from distance, either.
Spurs fans will remember one in particular from their club’s Europa League defeat last season, Aubameyang sidefooting home from 25 yards to give Dortmund the lead in a 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane. His rise is a product of training – a ceaseless quest of self-improvement. The talent’s always been there but it’s taken years to hone it. There’s a reason, quite apart from the familial connection, why he was on AC Milan’s books from the age of 18 to 21, even if he wasn’t handed a first-team appearance. Throughout today’s training session, Aubameyang completes every exercise at maximum intensity. He works through a mind-bendingly intricate seven-pass, dribble and shot drill with ease, admonishing himself with a frustrated skyward look whenever he finds the gloves of Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller with an effort from just inside the penalty area. It’s the same during the possession drills, too. With the main session over, and the other players heading back to the showers, Aubameyang heads straight over to the kit store to fetch a blue plastic free-kick wall so that he can practise them with his partner-in-crime, Reus. It’s a fascinating insight to the daily routine of one of European football’s most feared strikers and his quest for perfection. He applies a similar attitude to learning languages. Aubameyang speaks French and Spanish (his mother is from the small town of El Barraco, west of Madrid) as well as Italian, German and English. As he tells FFT, he even applied that constant quest for self-improvement to the science of running faster.
How did you get to be so electrifyingly quick?
I really don’t know. At Milan, when I was younger, I worked a lot on the leg press because I had lost a bit of my natural speed as my body changed. I was growing too fast for the rest of my body to cope, so I had knee problems. So I worked very hard in the gym to try to regain these fast sprints. That makes me proud.
Is it true you run 30 metres faster than Usain Bolt?
I don’t know, but a few years ago I did manage to run 30m in 3.7 seconds, so that was a nice thing to do. Whether that makes me quicker than Usain Bolt, I don’t know! We all know Usain is the best. Will we have a race one day? I really hope so! It would certainly be a good challenge.
Why didn’t things work out at Milan?
I was very young back then. They had a dream team at that time, with players like Paolo Maldini, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf – so many greats. I was young and it was hard to break into the team, but I’m so thankful for the experience because I learned so much. I was in Milan in June and I spoke to [vice-president] Adriano Galliani, and he said that he was very happy for me. You feel good when someone like that says this. Of course, when I left Milan, I was full of determination to demonstrate to them that I was a good player.
How proud were you to win the 2015 African Player of the Year award back in January?
Wow, it’s difficult for me to put how I felt into words. I was the happiest guy in the world that day. I made my parents incredibly proud, and that was important to me. I was especially proud for my father, Pierre, in particular as he is African. I chose to represent Gabon because he had been captain of the national team, and I am just trying to follow in his footsteps.
What did you make of Yaya Toure’s reaction to you being given the award, describing it as “pathetic”?
I can understand it, because he wanted to win the award, which would have been for a fifth time. Maybe it was a bit sad, but nothing really happened. I have so much respect for him and I wish him all the best. Winning that award clearly meant a great deal to you and your father. How big a role has he played during your career? He’s been massive for me. He was a professional himself and knows what works and what doesn’t work for a football player. He always knows what’s best for me. He has always helped me – even today. We still talk on the phone after my matches, about how I played and how I can get better. We have a father-son relationship but I think there is something more. I can’t explain it.
Is it true that you used to kick balls while you were watching his matches on television?
[ Smiles] Yeah, it’s absolutely true. I started playing football because of my dad. I used to watch all of his international matches with Gabon at the ground, then we’d go home and watch again on the TV, kicking an imaginary ball around the house. I do that now with my son, actually, in the front room. It’s just like when I was a kid. He is coming along well. He might become a good player, just like his dad!
Now, we know that you’re a big Batman fan. So what’s your favourite Batman movie? It’s so difficult to choose! I’d say The Dark Knight, with the Joker. If I had to be a Batman villain I’d definitely be him. I’m a bit of a joker myself. I like him, because with his make-up he always has a smile – just like me!
Which other Borussia Dortmund players do you think would make for good Batman villains?
I don’t know. Marco Reus and Ousmane Dembele would be good villains, I think – I don’t know which ones, but the three of us as villains would be scary for anyone! I have Batman memorabilia all over my house – posters, collectibles, the lot. It’s all for my son, too. He’s a big Spiderman fan, though, so we have got a little bit of a problem there! [ Laughs]
How do you like to relax away from the pitch?
I love spending time at home with my kids, as well as playing on the PlayStation. Nothing special. I’m a calm guy; I like doing quiet things at home. I’m also a big trainer fan. I’ve got loads of pairs at home. Which are my favourite? These ones, actually! They’re very shiny, I designed them myself and they are custom-made.
What will be your New Year’s resolution for 2017?
I was actually talking about this the other day with my translator. I think I should drive more slowly. I should definitely drive more slowly! [ Laughs]
Interview over, Aubameyang zooms across the Borussia Dortmund press room and crouches over the Fussball table he’s long been eyeing. “Come on, then,” he beams. “Let’s play.” Lightning quick on the draw, he blasts home an opening goal before we’ve blinked. Then he toys with us, rolling the ball across his forward line and throwing in the odd dummied shot before stuffing home another two. Just two days after handing us a table football lesson, Pierre-Emerick is passing on similar teachings to real-life defenders. He scores three at Hamburg within 30 minutes of the match starting, then adds a fourth – his 14th in 13 games this season – after the interval, as the visitors triumph 5-2. We got off lightly. At 3-0 down we retire, our pride irrevocably dented. Back in front of the camera for a couple of pictures, the Bundesliga hotshot goes through myriad poses, smiles and hand gestures. “It’s irresistible, Mr Bond!” shouts one passing Dortmund coach, who’s popped his head in to find out what all the commotion is. Aubameyang descends into laughter. He may love to be the centre of attention, but he is supremely personable and, as we bid farewell, he apologises for FFT’s table football beating. With that, hands are shaken and Europe’s most lethal speedster departs. Moments later, a sports car roars past the press room at ear-ringing volume. “That was Auba,” laughs Dortmund’s press officer. “So much for that New Year’s resolution, eh?” Sometimes rules are made to be broken.