From somersaults to fake interviews - the making of Aubameyang
The Etoile Lavalloise futsal club in Laval, western France, is an unremarkable building on an unremarkable street so one can only imagine the excitement before Christmas when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived in his Lamborghini wearing a gold suit to unveil a plaque in his honour.
During this week's visit to the town 300km west-southwest of Paris, Aubameyang's car was the first detail mentioned by the two council workers mopping the floor in the gymnasium and his visit is recorded in the photographs that hang on the walls in the small clubroom bar upstairs.
He might then have been on the brink of a move to Arsenal as the club's £56 million record signing but that day the 28-year-old still put on a kit and graced the old hall where he once played every week.
The latest superstar import to the English game plays for Arsenal in his first north London derby today, and Laval was where it all began for the man who was top scorer in the Bundesliga last season and now wears Thierry Henry's No 14 shirt. As the gold suits, supercars and novelty goal celebrations will tell you, Aubameyang rather likes the ostentatious side of the modern game. It might just be a reaction to growing up in a quiet provincial city that is a long from the urban estates that have produced so many of the French game's top players.
Laval can claim two other famous former residents of contrasting careers: Henri Rousseau, the 19th century avant-garde painter, and Francis Coquelin, the 21st century defensive midfielder who is more Remi Garde than avant-garde.
Coquelin left Arsenal for Valencia last month but more of him later. One of Aubameyang's former coaches Clarisse Guinoiseau remembers Arsenal's new striker as a boy who was ready-made for fame, the only U-11 footballer in Laval who celebrated goals with a somersault and would practise being interviewed in his bedroom.
Guinoiseau, 53, whose three sons still play and coach at the ASL L'Huisserie club where Aubameyang began, says that the young Aubameyang always imagined he would follow in his father's footsteps and play the game professionally. Speaking on the phone, she says, "I've heard his father say that when Pierre-Emerick was younger he would stage interviews in his bedroom. He would play the part of the journalist and the footballer, answering questions as if he were a professional."
Aubameyang's father Pierre was a Gabon international and in the 1980s was part of a new generation of African footballers in the French game, playing for a number of clubs but staying longest at Laval's Stade Lavallois. During his time, the club had a golden era when they reached the top flight though Les Tangos are now in the third tier.
Clarisse's ex-husband Alain Guinoiseau, 61, helped to run Aubameyang's first junior team at ASL L'Huisserie, a southern district of the city where the young Aubameyang lived with his maternal grandparents.
"We have a saying here that dogs don't give birth to cats," says Alain. "With the blood of his father he was always going to be a player. The club started accepting boys at six years old but Pierre-Emerick was five when he joined us. We took him early because his father was such a good player. First you noticed the goals Pierre-Emerick scored and then it was the somersaults after he scored."
Pierre-Emerick followed his father's career with brief stints at Nice - at the age of eight - and then back to Laval after which he played at Rouen and Bastia before finally signing for AC Milan as an 18-year-old. During his 1980s and 1990s career, Pierre's name was shortened to Aubame and his son was referred to on registrations as Aubame-Crespo, the second surname from his Spanish mother Margarita.
At Stade Lavallois, they remember his father Pierre, now one of AC Milan's scouts in Africa, as a fixture in the team in the 1980s. Bernard Mottais, 61, a coach of the junior teams, played with Aubameyang senior in the reserves. He said: "We had a scout in those days looking for players in Paris. There was a network but not like it is now. Pierre had come from Gabon to Paris and it was there that we spotted him. He was a box-to-box midfielder. He trained with the reserves for six months and went into the first team."
Pierre-Emerick was born while his father was playing for Stade Lavallois and Jean Fabian Peslier, 38, coached Aubameyang junior for one season at the club when he was in the U-11s. "He was so naturally fast and he could win games for his team on his own," Peslier says. "He was a character, but he moved on very quickly."
Moving on was a feature of Aubameyang's career, even once he had signed professionally with AC Milan, for whom he never played a senior game. He was loaned to Dijon, Lille and Monaco before eventually St Etienne signed him in 2010. After three seasons building his reputation there he moved on to Borussia Dortmund in 2013, eventually inheriting the goalscoring mantle from Robert Lewandowski and becoming one of Europe's best strikers.
Yet for all his travels, he regards Laval as home and comes back often. He attended the event at the futsal club before Christmas and he has built a new home for his mother and grandparents in the nearby village of Bonchamp. Aubameyang has two sons with partner Alysha Behague.
"When he comes back he had got the cars and the look but he's a nice guy," says Alain Guinoiseau. "He says hello to everyone, he doesn't think he is above anybody. He seems to like coming back here and playing football with his old friends who still live in the area. We want him to play for L'Huisserie veterans' team when he retires."
Pierre-Emerick's maternal grandfather was responsible for taking him to games as a child with his father Pierre finishing his career post-Laval with stints playing in Gabon, Colombia and Italy as well as France. Pierre-Emerick's older half-brothers Willy and Catilina also played in the AC Milan youth teams and all three have represented Gabon. Pierre-Emerick was a France U-21 but elected to play for the country of his father's birth.
Back in L'Huisserie, the transfer of Aubameyang is not the only Arsenal deal that has been a topic of discussion recently. Coquelin's £11m move to Valencia last month resulted in a Fifa transfer solidarity payment of €30,000 to the rival local club AS Bourny where the midfielder spent many of his developmental years. Aubameyang's time at ASL L'Huisserie was interrupted but his connection with the area remains strong and a similar sum would come in handy. There are no other amateur teams in his past other than ASL L'Huisserie.
"We have a very small budget for paying coaches," says the club's president Jean-Marc Pussat. "When our best players reach a certain age they always leave for Stade Lavallois. Later they often end up coming back to us although our best one has gone a very long way indeed."
© Daily Telegraph, London