In October 2015, Borussia Dortmund superstar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang smashed in six goals in two games. FK Qabala were the first to suffer at his feet when he beat their keeper three times in a Europa League showdown; he followed this by destroying Augsburg’s previously pretty sturdy back line in the Bundesliga.
The fastest players are often also the most destructive. This uncoachable quality can be the difference between victory and defeat in the 2017 Africa Cup Of Nations. Alongside Aubameyang, these are the most agile players taking part:
- Serge Aurier
- Mohamed Salah
The striker’s consecutive hat-tricks were not the consequence of fluke, but design – he had bet his brother he would achieve this. The incredible haul took Aubameyang’s tally to 20 goals across all competitions that season, which won him another wager, this time with coach Thomas Tuchel – and there were seven months of the campaign still to play.
The reigning African Footballer Of The Year, now 27, ended 2015/16 with a further 19 successful strikes, and he’s already in double figures this term. Aubameyang has always placed a sizeable stake on himself realising his ambitions, and this has never been a risk, given the player’s tireless application to his craft.
“What people who don’t know Auba sometimes don’t realise is how hard he’s working for what he wants to achieve,” reveals his Dortmund teammate and close friend Marco Reus.
Aubameyang, who was raised in a football-mad family – his father, Pierre François, operated as a defender for club and country – has never been one for the easy route. Having joined AC Milan’s youth academy, he was loaned out four times to French clubs – Dijon, Lille, Monaco and Saint-Étienne – and failed to make a single first-team appearance for the Italian giants. But he did not accept that his chance to represent a European powerhouse had passed him by, even when his temporary stays at Lille’s Stade Pierre-Mauroy and Monaco’s Stade Louis II didn’t go as planned.
Aubameyang upped the ante at Saint-Étienne, displaying a mix of artistry and industry that won him a permanent contract. He finished his first season – 2011/12 – as Ligue 1’s top scorer with 16 goals, adding two more, plus seven assists, across all competitions.
Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic – then at Paris Saint-Germain – could better his tally of 19 goals the following campaign, which saw Aubameyang lift his maiden major honour, the 2013 Coupe de la Ligue (known outside of France as the French League Cup).
Jurgen Klopp, then manager of Dortmund, was in the market for a dynamic attacker; he wanted a player who could not only destroy the opposition when in possession, but disrupt their play off the ball, too. The German wisely opted for Aubameyang – an absolute steal for €10 million in July 2013.
The reigning African Footballer Of The Year will be the host nation’s talisman and spearhead. He has pace and power to burn, and has proved his clinical goal-scoring pedigree week after week in the Bundesliga, making Aubameyang one of the most feared strikers in European football.
Aubameyang became the first Gabonese footballer to feature in the Bundesliga, and went on to be named Player Of The Season in the German top flight. He continues to smash records at Dortmund, where he is closing in on a century of goals, and there’s no doubt he’ll build on the 16 he has for his country.
Aubameyang, the captain of his national team, was also eligible to play for France, but in typical fashion he decided against this less-challenging option. “I made the decision with my heart, not my head,” he says. “Maybe it would have been easier to play for France. But going to the World Cup or winning the Ballon d’Or while playing for Gabon… that’s a bigger motivation.” And who would want to bet against him achieving that?
The Paris Saint-Germain defender has courted controversy during his time in the French capital, but Aurier is an important figure on the right for club and country. The Ivorian’s tough tackling and his ability to whip in quality crosses make him the perfect modern full-back.
After a disappointing spell in England at Chelsea, Salah has blossomed at Roma. Prolific with goals as well as assists, the winger is adept at beating defenders with pace and skill, and will be key in Egypt’s shot at an eighth AFCON title.