There’s a party goin’ on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you
(“Celebration” – Kool and the Gang)
Do you remember those glorious days before VAR when a player would score, you would glance quickly at the linesman to check his flag was not raised and then break into rapturous celebration, safe in the knowledge that your joy would not be crushed by a man in a little room with a video monitor somewhere? I know it feels like a while but those were the good old days. One day we will be explaining to our grandkids how you knew a goal was a goal almost instantly and they will look up at you wide-eyed and laugh at the craziness of it all. Spontaneous joy, fun – what bizarre concepts!
Of course, it is not just the fans that have to now suffer through watching the replay to see if their team committed a foul two minutes before in the build-up or if the scorer’s ankle was offside. For the players too, they now have to be careful. Gone are the days of crazy celebrations – nothing could make a scorer look more stupid than some fancy routine that then ends in a disallowed goal through VAR and much laughter from all opposing fans around the country. Which is a shame given some of the classic celebrations that we have witnessed over the years. Who can forget Gerrard’s camera kiss against Man Utd, Ballotelli’s “Why Always Me? t-shirt, Totti’s selfie or, most infamously, Peter Crouch’s robot dance.
You can only imagine the mocking that would now occur if Crouch broke into his dance, only for the goal to then be overturned. What player is going to risk such embarrassment, which is such a shame as it takes a spark of joy from the game we love.
In remembering the art of celebration, one player in particular comes to mind who encapsulated the child-like euphoria of sticking the ball in the net – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Since 2010, he has graced three clubs – St Etienne, Borussia Dortmund and current club Arsenal. His last two seasons at St Etienne saw him net 35 goals in just 73 appearances, including being the second highest scorer in Ligue 1 in his second season behind only Zlatan Ibrahimovic – which is pretty good company to be keeping at such a young age. That put him on the radar of a number of European clubs, so in 2013 Aubameyang joined Borussia Dortmund where he would cement his reputation.
Needless to say, Aubameyang is a great striker as any highlight reel of his goals will attest. But in a modern, high pressure footballing world, he also brings a smile to the face with his infamous goal celebrations. Movie-goers have embraced superhero movies over the past few years, making them the hottest franchise and a cultural phenomenon. Be it Marvel or DC, multiplexes have been packed out pre-pandemic with fans of The Avengers, Spiderman and Batman. Just think about Halloween and how many small kids now trick or treat in superhero masks. And included in those dress-up fans is Aubameyang.
It all started during his time at St Etienne. A goal against Stade Rennes saw Aubameyang run to a bag beside the goal, pull out a plastic Spiderman mask and put it on for his goal celebration which included shooting imaginary webs at the camera. Suffice to say his teammates had probably never seen anything quite like it but they laughed along with him. When asked about it years later by “Arsenal Player”, he explained the idea as follows:
“The very first time I put a mask on, it was Spiderman when I was at Saint-Etienne. It was a tribute to a goalkeeper at our club, Jeremie Janot. When I was younger he came out on to the pitch in the full Spiderman suit and played in goal. It was crazy! On his birthday, I put the mask on to celebrate that.”
As well as the Spiderman stunt, Aubameyang also perfected the full frontal somersault while in France – a celebration guaranteed to give physios nightmares – as well as sporting his elaborate Mohican hairstyles. He also warmed up ahead of a local derby against Lyon wearing a pair of customized Nike Vapor boots encrusted with 4,000 Swarovski crystals worth $3,000. His passion for cars saw him purchase a soft-top Aston Martin DB9 Mansory in crocodile-skin green. His goal-scoring gift, along with his extroverted side, made him a fan-favourite amongst Les Verts.
However, the Spiderman goal celebration was only the start of a trend that would evolve during his time at Dortmund.
13 August 2014 – Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund in the German Supercup, the annual contest between the previous season’s Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal Cup winners, being played at Dortmund’s home stadium. Henrikh Mkhitaryan scores after 23 minutes to see Dortmund go in at half-time ahead. Then, on 62 minutes, Aubameyang leaps highest to a cross and heads past Manuel Neuer, bends over to roll down his sock and produces another Spiderman mask. But he has now upgraded from the previous cheap plastic variety to a more realistic lycra mask similar to the movie version. As he celebrated in front of the famous “Yellow Wall”, cue corny TV commentary “the man they call the Spiderman, and it’s a web from which Bayern Munich will do well to escape now”. You just had to break out into a broad smile – although maybe the Bayern players were not overly amused.
After the match, Aubameyang explained that the mask had been in honour of his son’s third birthday. When asked, captain Sebastian Kehl commented. “Lucky for him that this goal was enough to win it. We probably would have beaten him up otherwise!” Manager Jürgen Klopp added that “it made me chuckle – as long as he can run with that thing in his socks and he doesn’t get booked, he’s allowed to do it”. It seems taking off your shirt is bookable while donning a lycra mask is not. Apparently, this was not a new phenomenon to Klopp – whilst at Mainz back in 2007, one of his players, Félix Borja, had donned a Grim Reaper mask during a game.
Of course, no one likes to pigeonhole themselves too much. Two Spider-Man celebrations with two different clubs was just about acceptable, but a third would start to feel stale. It is always important to keep your fan-base guessing and freshen up your act – and Aubameyang did not disappoint.
28 February 2015 – Dortmund face Schalke at home in one of the biggest rivalry games in football – the Revierderby. A game that is of paramount importance to both sets of fans, during a season where Dortmund have had little to cheer about to date. Goalless after 78 minutes, the ball breaks to Aubameyang in the area who pokes it into the corner, again in front of the famed “Yellow Wall”. As the terrace explodes into joy, Aubameyang again grabs his secret horde bag by the goal and calls teammate Marcos Reus over to him. A moment of tension as they fumble with the contents before Reus slips on a Robin eyepiece and faces Aubameyang clad in full Batman mask and cape. Yes, one mask is so yesterday, why not go for two? Pretty quickly Reus removes his article rather sheepishly while Aubameyang continues to proudly channel his inner bat. Dortmund go on to win 3-0, with Reus grabbing the third, no doubt inspired by his new superpowers. The scorers go down on record as Batman, Mkhitaryan and Robin.
Of course, the post-match interview focused on the elephant (or should that be the bat?) in the room. Aubameyang explained that “I like the film and we were after something with two masks so that we could do something together”. Marvel and DC had now both received free promotions!
Now, doing a celebration such as that in front of your fiercest rivals is always going to be somewhat controversial. There is an element of playing with fire that means it is probably best not to overdo it. Or, alternatively, you could just rub it in their faces during your next meeting. Which brings us to the sequel – Batman Returns.
November 8 2015 – Dortmund face Schalke once again at home. This time Dortmund get off to a faster start, leading 2-1 at half-time through goals from Kagawa and Ginter. Just after the restart, a through-ball puts Aubameyang away and he tucks the ball into the bottom corner before whipping off his shirt to reveal a yellow t-shirt with the Batman logo and the words “Do You Remember?” which he once again proudly displays to the adoring “Yellow Wall”.
Of course, this results in a yellow card and under new coach, Thomas Tuchel, there was concern that he may not be overly amused with a player moving closer to suspension. But then a derby win is particularly special, which may be the reason for Tuchel saying “I had read in the build-up to the game that he had something in mind, so I just turned a blind eye. In the return game, I would perhaps turn a blind eye again, but only in these two games”.
Aubameyang did admit however that “I didn’t speak to [Tuchel] before because I knew he would have forbidden me. But I dedicate it to [Reus]. We had actually prepared the T-shirt together.” Just in case anyone thinks footballers do not have too much time on their hands.
Unfortunately for Tuchel and Dortmund, Aubameyang failed to get on the scoresheet in the 2-2 return fixture, but he did end the season with 39 goals in all competitions, a prodigious strike rate. The home Revierderby was goalless in the following season but then Dortmund travelled across town in April.
April 1, 2017 – Schalke at home to Dortmund, with it goalless up to the 53rd minute. Then Aubameyang does what he does best and once again Schalke fans have to suffer watching him extract a new mask from his collection – one that ends up being described as Hypervenom – as he moves on from his Spider-Man and Batman days.
As most people are aware, Aubameyang’s talent for goal-scoring saw him move to Arsenal for a then club record of £56M in the summer of 2018. Of course, in the stiff upper-lipped world of English football, it seemed sure that his mask antics would have to stop. What would English fans make of such a gesture? Well, we were soon to find out.
March 14 2019 – Arsenal at home against Rennes in the second leg of the Europa League Round of 16. Having been beaten in France 3-1, the Gunners face a stiff challenge to avoid elimination at home. However, two goals from Aubameyang help them to a 3-0 victory and progression onwards. The second of these goals, after 72 minutes, see Aubameyang tap in a low cross at the far side, run to his trusty bag behind the goal and don a new mask from his repertoire. This time he returns to the Marvel fold and pays tribute to the king of Wakanda himself – the Black Panther. While also donning black gloves, Aubameyang does the full Wakanda Forever sign at the TV cameras. A new superhero is making his mark in North London. And this time it does earn him a yellow card.
Interviewed later, Aubameyang explained, “I needed a mask who represents me, it’s Black Panther and in Gabon we call the national team the Panther of Gabon, so it represents me.”
Tragically, the actor who played the Black Panther, the marvelous Chadwick Boseman, passed away from colon cancer on August 28, 2020 at the age of just 43 – a condition that he had kept private while continuing to act. Arsenal met Liverpool the following day in the annual English league season opener – The FA Community Shield – in front of a closed stadium due to the Covid pandemic.
August 29 2020 – Arsenal against Liverpool in the FA Community Shield. After just 12 minutes, Aubameyang receives the ball on the left, cuts inside and curls a lovely shot into the far corner. Klopp gives a wry smile as his former prodigy celebrates with the Wakanda Forever pose as a tribute to the deceased actor – but no mask. The game goes to penalties and, of course, the final winning penalty is converted by Aubameyang.
However, not everyone is taken with Aubameyang’s various celebrations. On a German podcast, Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos commented that “Aubameyang once celebrated and took out a mask. That’s where it ends for me. I don’t think that’s a good role model, either. What nonsense.”
Aubameyang expressed surprise on Twitter asking if Kroos had kids, as he did this for his son. This led Kroos to respond with a brief tweet – THIS Toni Kroos has 3 kids. The spat didn’t end there with Aubameyang tweeting a picture of himself and Reus as Batman and Robin sending Kross “congratulations for his 3 kids cordially your Batman and Robin”. Next Mesut Ozil, formerly a team-mate of Kroos with Germany, posted a video of Aubameyang’s Black Panther goal celebration tweeting “the best goal celebration!” The joys of modern players and Twitter.
And that brings us up to the current day in respect to Aubameyang’s many and varied celebrations. There will always be haters who feel that it is overly theatrical and “whatever happened to a good old Shearer one-arm celebration”. But I would argue that it is great to see such joy and emotion expressed on the pitch. After all, don’t we all feel a certain magic when we score a goal, even if it is just in a park kick-around or Sunday afternoon pub game? And so why repress emotions when such a joyful moment occurs? And if the celebration makes Aubameyang’s son smile, then even better.
It only remains to hope that, in a new era of VAR and the time delay in confirming a goal, that the spontaneous joy of the goal-scoring moment is not diluted or ruined altogether. It is already spoiling the fan experience as we hold our breath and watch the replay praying that no infringement occurred anywhere in the build-up. It would be a pity if players also now restrained their celebrations for the same reason. After all, it is all part of the pageantry of the game we love so much.
Mind you, did the world really need the Peter Crouch robot dance? As they say, beauty is all in the eye of the beholder.