Anyone with Milan’s best interests at heart must wince whenever they hear about the latest exploits of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the €50million-rated Borussia Dortmund sharpshooter and reigning African Player of the Year.
Before becoming one of the most coveted players in the world – and rumoured to be on the shopping lists of Real Madrid and Manchester City – PEA, as he is known, was a teenage professional in the hallowed halls of Milan. However, he never got any further than the youth team and was eventually shipped out on loan to a string of French sides – Dijon, Lille, Monaco and Saint-Etienne – before, to all intents and purposes, he was forgotten and then discarded.
The French-born superstar-to-be is very much the one that got away for Milan, a source of considerable regret at a club which has neglected its academy for far too long and has been vainly chasing past glories these past few years.
“He’s had his revenge,” declared close friend and former Milan under-19 keeper Gianmarco Campironi in a 2014 interview with the Pianeta Milan website. “Nowadays, someone like him would have made the jump to the Milan pros.
“Although the club’s economic difficulties have played their part, Milan today are braver in giving a chance to their youngsters. Back then, the policy was not particularly one of continuity, and the likes of Aubameyang were allowed to go.”
Lining up in the same Milan junior side as future Manchester United and Italy full-back Matteo Darmian and current Atalanta striker Alberto Paloschi, Aubameyang only spent 18 months with the Rossoneri but impressed his team-mates nonetheless. Nigerian midfielder Wilfred Osuji insists he fully expected to see PEA’s name in lights, while striker Emanuele Orlandi especially remembers the striker for his remarkable pace – which remains one of his strong suits to this day.
“Everything he did was at great speed,” Orlandi told French magazine So Foot. “On getting past his opponent in a one-on-one, it was all over. You could tell he had a future in the game, but I probably wouldn’t have bet on him ending up at Borussia Dortmund.”
The highlight of his time with Milan was undoubtedly his extraordinary body of work at the 2007 Champions Youth Cup in Malaysia, a one-off precursor to the NextGen Series and the UEFA Youth League.
The scorer of all seven of Milan’s goals in the competition – on target against Flamengo, Ajax, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Juventus – he almost single-handedly dragged his side into the semi-finals while earning the top-scorer award.
That explosive summer in south-east Asia was, however, to be as good as it got at Milan.
Compared to the big-name strikers on the club’s books – Ronaldinho, Pato, Inzaghi, Shevchenko – the youngster was at best an irrelevance and, after a flurry of loan spells, he signed a permanent deal with Saint-Etienne late in 2011.
His then-Milan youth-team coach Filippo Galli, who had been an excellent central defender in the club’s great side of the late 1980s and early 1990s, clearly has regrets that the young man never had the chance to strut his stuff at the San Siro. “The decision [to let him leave] was not down to me,” he told Tutto Mercato Web. “Pierre always was a very useful player to have at your disposal, an attacker of great potential. He was very willing, was quick to learn and extremely adaptable.
“As his first coach, I’ve a deep emotional bond with him.”
For quite some time, PEA felt he had not been treated fairly by Milan and was particularly keen to vent his spleen when talking to Gazzetta dello Sport in 2012 about his good form for Saint-Etienne. “They didn’t believe in me,” he exclaimed.
“So now I want to show them that they made a mistake.”
But now, at the grand old age of 27, and with his sporting stock at its zenith, he is much more sanguine about his Italian rejection. “In France, many say that Milan didn’t give me a chance,” he commented in So Foot. “However, the truth is that with the players they had, where were they going to play me?”
Aubameyang was, in fact, the fourth member of his family to be employed by Milan. His father, Pierre, a former French-based Gabon international central defender or midfield holder, worked for the Milanese giants as a scout, having apparently talked himself into the job during a chance meeting with then-Milan administrator Ariedo Braida at Venice airport. Pierre-Emerick’s elder brothers Catilina and Willy both managed to achieve what he could not and bridged the gap between youth and first team, albeit in a short-lived fashion. Wide midfielder Catilina made a handful of senior appearances in the early part of the noughties, while striker Willy swiftly faded from view after scoring the winner against Juventus in the 2007 edition of the pre-season Berlusconi Trophy.
Absolutely key to the younger sibling’s development into a world-class goal machine is the influence of his father and agent, whom PEA often refers to as “Le Guide”. With his dad constantly on the move during his playing days – turning out for five French sides as well as Triestina in Italy and Colombian side Junior Barranquilla – he was not only a first-hand witness to the life of the football nomad but lived and breathed the sport.
Mindful that his own father had actively tried to discourage him from making a career in the game, Aubameyang senior was determined, perhaps even obsessed, that his sons should follow in his footsteps and, in the case of PEA, he has never been far from his side, offering advice, encouragement, home truths and, of course, connections.
“At each step of my career, my dad has done the best for me,” PEA declared in an interview with L’Equipe early this year. “In 2012, when I’d just had a great goalscoring season for Saint-Etienne, I received an offer from Qatar worth €10million a year.
If I’d accepted, my family would have been set up for life. Yet, we decided to stay at Saint-Etienne, where I was earning €70,000 a month.
“The following season, Saint-Etienne wanted to sell me to Newcastle but, in the end, we plumped for a lower offer from Dortmund because my father had been studying Klopp’s playing style. It’s the reason I see my dad as my prophet.”
Aubameyang the elder also played a predominant role in his son’s choice of national team. Born and bred in the town of Laval in western France, PEA made one friendly appearance for the France under-21s, in February 2009, but a month later opted to represent Gabon, citing his father’s 80-cap association with the Panthers and his desire to become an African great; a Gabonese version of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o – who is a friend of the Aubameyangs – or Didier Drogba with Ivory Coast.
PEA often makes a point of drawing attention to his Spanish links and he could have played for La Roja. His mother, Magarita, hails from the city of Avila in the Castilla y Leon region and her late father, Jose Crespos, Aubameyang’s grandfather, was an avid follower of Real Madrid.
Whether on the maternal or paternal side, family means a lot for Pierre-Emerick and he certainly needed his father’s wise counsel on returning to France after his spell at Milan. While he proved reasonably successful in the second tier with Dijon, in subsequent top-flight postings at Lille and Monaco he struggled for the most part, generally cast in the local media as a mere speedster who lacked touch, awareness and finishing ability.
For a short period at Monaco he looked as though he was finally making progress, but following the replacement of coach Guy Lacombe with Laurent Banide, he once again found himself out in the cold.
Lacombe admits that even some of his own staff tried to talk him out of picking Pierre-Emerick when in charge of Monaco. “I thought he was an extraordinarily athletic player,” says Lacombe. “He was pacy, made darting runs and was lively on his feet. Technically he wasn’t Maradona, but I felt he had something about him.
“He was only 21 and the club didn’t give him time. Someone took a dislike to him and he found it hard to cope.”
Early in 2011 he was loaned out again, this time heading for the football hot spot of Saint-Etienne. While his first six months there were nothing to write home about, he began to take flight in the opening rounds of the 2011-12 campaign. He signed permanently for Les Verts and went on a goal blitz, scoring 16 that season and 19 the next, and helping the team win the French League Cup in 2013.
“He walks on water,” once gushed Saint-Etienne coach Christophe Galtier. “He is like Moses. He parts the sea.”
Several factors contributed to his spectacular emergence at Saint-Etienne. The decision of Galtier to use him mainly on the right wing, which gave him licence to cut inside at will; Galtier’s total faith in him and the fact that for the first time in years he actually “belonged” to a club; and the electrifying fervour of the crowd at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
The man himself, though, had another interpretation. “I’m now the father of a little boy and that’s a life-changing moment,” he told Lyon daily Le Progres. “I think of him and his future. I want to do well so that he wants for nothing and is proud of me.”
On the surface his image is that of the flamboyant showman, with his somersault goal celebrations and the Spider-Man mask he once donned after scoring for Dortmund in 2014. His love of bling, fast cars, avant-garde hairstyles and the gold-lame jacket he once wore on a French TV programme, only add to that impression. But drill down deeper and you will find a much simpler soul.
Rather than taking a holiday in a sun-drenched luxury resort half-way across the world, he prefers to return to Laval to relax with family and friends, and whenever he has the chance he goes there to promote a charity or support a sporting project.
“It’s a need I have,” he declared to local newspaper Ouest-France. “I’m back in Laval four or five times a year. I adore it. Far from the din of Dortmund I feel at ease. One time I took a holiday elsewhere. I couldn’t stand it.
“Every time I leave Laval after a holiday there, I feel great in mind and body. I return to Dortmund full of energy.”
A town of some 50,000 inhabitants in the Mayenne region, Laval is where it all began for Aubameyang. Kicking his first ball at the age of five at the L’Huisserie club in the southern suburbs, he went on to shine up front for the schoolboy section of Stade Lavallois, the club where his father arguably played the best football of his pro career.
The accusation which used to be levelled at PEA was that he was a beneficiary of nepotism, that he would not have become a professional without his father pulling strings and calling in favours. But that’s far from the whole story. Besides an unshakeable belief that pro football was his calling, he always knew that talent alone was not enough and that the hard yards had to be put in.
After prematurely leaving school at 15, he was so determined to be prepared for any future trials that he spent six months in Laval on a punishing daily training regime, going on cross-country runs, working on his sprinting and aiming to copy the finishing skills of top-of-the bill Lyon attackers Sonny Anderson and Sidney Govou.
Friends wondered if he was wasting his time. Not that he was willing to listen. And soon he would be vindicated, deemed good enough to be admitted to the youth ranks of Le Havre, Bastia and Milan.
This work ethic and dedication to his craft remain core characteristics today. Take his reaction to being benched by Jurgen Klopp in the latter stages of his first campaign at Dortmund. Informed by the coach that he had to offer more than blistering speed and that he was not pulling his weight defensively, he might have sulked or turned disruptive. Instead, he plumped for putting in some overtime on the training ground.
Back in the starting line-up for the start of the following season, he appeared to have a firmer handle on the Klopp system. More tuned in to the needs of the team, more flexible, better technically, and a far more composed taker of chances in front of goal, most of his 16 Bundesliga goals that season came after he made the switch from the right wing to centre-forward.
“Having the chance to play through the middle was the turning point for me,” said Aubameyang during a conversation with ex-French international midfielder, Luis Fernandez on his Radio Monte Carlo show early this year. “Basically, it’s my favourite position. It allows me to be in better shape when it comes to finishing. Playing out wide is more demanding effort-wise. Now I can be in the danger zone all the time.”
A couple of years after the departure of Polish ace Robert Lewandowski for Bayern Munich, Dortmund had at last filled the void. And just to underline the message, the Gabon front man was to prove even sharper last season under a new boss at the Westfalenstadion, Thomas Tuchel, delivering the mammoth consignment of 39 goals in all competitions.
Quite rightly, Aubameyang has plenty of praise for the way in which Klopp and Tuchel have brought the best out of him, but he also owes a debt of gratitude to the German game as a whole. Characterised by its dynamism, freshness and open, attack-minded style of play, the Bundesliga is tailor-made for him and it will be interesting to see how he fares should he move to England or Spain in a not-too distant future.
Made in Africa, Germany, France and Italy, Aubameyang can’t help stirring the melting pot.