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 By Mark Gleeson

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a willing carrier of Gabon's ANC aspirations

Born in France to a father from Gabon and a Spanish mother and brought up in Italy, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could have chosen several different international career paths. Indeed, he was picked to play one game for France's Under-21 team at the age of 20, having been twice loaned out by AC Milan to French clubs, yet he made the choice to follow in his father's footsteps rather than hold out for a chance to play for Les Bleus.

Since then he has evolved into an iconic symbol for the oil-rich west African country and one on whom hopes will be firmly pinned when they host the African Nations Cup finals from Jan. 14 to Feb. 5. Never before will one player carry as much of a burden into the continental tournament, and Aubameyang will be all too aware of what the nation expects.

It was much the same in 2012 when Gabon co-hosted the event with neighbours Equatorial Guinea. They were not given much chance of winning but having progressed to the quarterfinals, suddenly a largely lethargic country awoke to the tantalising possibility of footballing glory.

When Eric Mouloungui scored just after half-time to go 1-0 up against Mali, a nation sat on edge only for their side to give away an equaliser five minutes from time.

After extra time, the tie was decided on penalties and it was Aubameyang who was the only player to fluff his effort, a feeble strike being saved by Soumaila Diakite and sending Gabon out of their own tournament.

His father led him from the field in tears as deflated fans filed slowly out of the Libreville Stadium, almost in disbelief of the calamity and how easily fleeting hope had been snatched from them.

Aubameyang already has hero status in Gabon, success in the Nations Cup could elevate that exponentially.

Now the 27-year-old has a chance to make up for the heartbreak, although the penalty botched is certainly not held against him. In Gabon he has demigod status, exceeding the adulation even his father enjoyed when he captained Gabon to a first Nations Cup finals tournament in 1994 and was their only major export to France at a time when African footballers were beginning to go abroad in numbers and were beginning to make headway in leading leagues.

Aubameyang's father got involved with the Italians as a scout once his playing days were over and his three sons all played in the junior structures as they grew up around Milan. But only elder brother Catilina ever graduated to the Rossoneri's first team and he saw just a single game at that.

Pierre-Emerick's career trajectory started slowly, but after moving to St Etienne the goals began flowing and by the time Gabon co-hosted in 2012 he had assumed the mantle his father had once held.

Gabon are not heavily fancied at the 2017 finals either, although home advantage is often a key factor and home sides generally do well at the Nations Cup.

Dortmund's Aubameyang might have match-winning qualities, but it remains to be seen whether there is enough tournament-winning quality around him when Gabon kick off the tournament against minnows Guinea Bissau in Libreville.

The country have never been among the continent's achievers -- this will be only their seventh Nations Cup finals appearance -- and when Aubameyang was named the African Footballer of the Year for 2015, it was their first major footballing prize.

He has brought much delight with his Bundesliga goals and his ascension up the ladder of world footballing superstar. Gabon enjoys an increased international profile because of him.

But that penalty sits uncomfortably still, the euphemistic elephant in the room. How Aubameyang looks to deal with it will be one of the more intriguing sub plots of the upcoming tournament and could prove to be a critical part in the player's ascendancy and ultimate legacy.

Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.


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