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Africa Sports News of Saturday, 3 April 2021


Can Arsenal Aubameyang star find Afcon redemption?

Even before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s attention turned to Arsenal’s Premier League blockbuster with Liverpool on Saturday evening, he could already look back on a successful week.

Only once before in the forward’s storied career had he successfully taken part in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign with Gabon before they booked their tickets to Cameroon during the international break.

It’s quite an eye-catching stat—particularly when you consider that the Nations Cup in 2022 will be Auba’s sixth major international tournament.

In 2012 and 2017, Gabon qualified as hosts, and therefore didn’t need to qualify.

In 2010, despite featuring in the tournament proper having made his international debut in 2009, Auba played no part in Gabon’s successful qualifying campaign.

Before the 2022 event, the only time he’s previously taken part in a successful qualifying campaign was in 2014, when Gabon topped Group C ahead of Burkina Faso, Angola and Lesotho to reach the tournament in Equatorial Guinea.

Auba’s double in a 2-0 victory over Burkina Faso in Libreville in October 2014 was critical in ensuring the Panthers topped the group.

This time around, it was imperative that Aubameyang and Gabon secured passage to neighbouring Cameroon for next year’s tournament.

The striker was part of Gabon’s ill-fated 2019 qualifying campaign, when they were stunned by first-time qualifiers Burundi who took the ticket to Egypt in their place.

It was a bitter disappointment for the Arsenal man, who became comfortably the most high-profile African player to miss out on the tournament.

They also missed out on the 2013 edition, but considering Aubameyang’s standing in the world game in the summer of 2019—he had just clinched the Premier League Golden Boot with 22 strikes—it was a significant blow that he was not present at the continent’s grandest table.

Qualification this time around—at the expense of neighbours Democratic Republic of Congo and again, Angola—represents redemption for Auba and Gabon after the failure of 2019.

It was a considerable achievement, particularly considering the clout of the DRC, the menace of plucky Gambia, and mid-campaign controversy, when the Panthers were forced to take to the field in Banjul despite having spent the previous night awake in a Gambian airport due to coronavirus confusion.

However, it’s only part of the road to redemption for Aubameyang.

The striker once claimed that his worst moment in football had come during the Nations Cup, when his missed penalty was responsible for Gabon’s elimination against Mali in the 2012 quarter-final on home soil.

“I missed a penalty against Mali in the quarter-final shootout and that’s probably my worst moment in football, but I live with it and since then I’ve scored more penalties,” he told journalists.

“It’s a bad moment but it’s allowed me to create many good moments since.”

The good moments at club level have been easy to detect—even if things have been tricky at Arsenal this season—but at international level, they have been few and far between.

Indeed, considering Auba was eligible for France, Italy or Spain before opting for the Panthers, there surely must have been times when he queried his own decision to represent the Central Africans rather than pursue an international career with one of the European giants.

While that 2012 penalty miss clearly left Aubameyang distraught, surely the first round elimination on home soil was 2017 was a greater failure.

Against a backdrop of turmoil and tension between the team and the federation, Auba was unable to inspire his troops to escape a none-too-demanding group stage, and Gabon limped out at the first hurdle.

Despite being Gabon’s all-time leading, Aubameyang to date has precious little to show for his international career to date.

While he may not be able to drag this collection of players to the title—despite the presence of the likes of Mario Lemina, Didier Ndong, Denis Bouanga and Aaron Boupendza—he does have a much stronger collection of teammates than George Weah, one of the other great African strikers to win the continent’s grandest prize.

Weah, however, broke new ground with Liberia, while Didier Drogba, Nwankwo Kanu and Michael Essien all achieved historic things with their national teams despite never getting their hands on the Nations Cup title.

A strong Afcon showing for Aubameyang personally, and perhaps winning Gabon’s first ever knockout game in the competition, or even the Final Four, would represent a crowning achievement of a troubled international career.

He will be 32 by the time the tournament rolls around, and won’t get that many more opportunities to impress on the grandest stage.

To date, Gabon have only ever won two Nations Cup matches away from home—in 1996 and 2010—and this must be the primary target for the Arsenal superstar.

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