It was the third time Aubameyang had taken his Black Panther mask on to the pitch – just in case he scored

The Arsenal striker stood with his arms crossed in the “Wakanda forever” pose, honouring the Marvel character’s fictional homeland.

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Who was that masked man? No mystery, actually. It was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal who just laid claim to the season’s most advanced goal celebration – and certainly its first goal celebration in fancy dress. Having scored against Rennes in the Europa League, the striker reached behind an advertising hoarding for a drawstring bag, withdrew a Black Panther superhero mask, tugged it over his face and then stood with his arms crossed in what pundits in the BT Sport studio would have been quick to recognise as the “Wakanda forever” pose, honouring the Marvel character’s fictional homeland.

Afterwards, Aubameyang, 29, was said in several reports to have “revealed his reason” for this moment of pageantry. He enjoyed, apparently, the Black Panther movie, based on the comic strips, which came out last year; and the Panthers also happens to be the nickname of Aubameyang’s national side, Gabon.

Well, those are illuminating pieces of background information, clearly, and, as such, good to have. Yet it’s not clear how far they really take us in the direction of rational explanation for what Aubameyang did that night in the middle of a football match. A deeper investigation would mention the growing demands of social media (felt by high-profile footballers as well as everybody else), and mull over new behaviours possibly arising from the desire for the “Instagrammable” moment. And perhaps such an investigation would find itself concluding that, if the effect of Instagram on certain, key Thai tourist beaches is disastrous overcrowding, then maybe the effect of Instagram on football is a striker with a top club placing a fright mask in a drawstring bag and concealing it behind an advertising hoarding in order to pose with it later.

Bear in mind that football is a game long since inured to choreographed tableaux in the ecstatic wake of goals – to extended passages of mime that have clearly been many hours in rehearsal, to complex performative fist-bumps hard-workshopped on the training ground, not to mention the revelation of bespoke undershirts bearing supportive messages for recently born offspring or struggling teammates. The days of the firm handshake and the crisp jog back to the centre circle are not only long behind us but entirely unimaginable now.

Yet with Aubameyang and his planted drawstring bag we seemed to be witnessing extra levels of forethought and patience. At two previous Arsenal home matches, we later learned, Aubameyang had placed the bag by the advertising hoarding in hope. On the first occasion, when Arsenal were playing Tottenham, he hadn’t scored. On the second occasion, against Manchester United, he had succeeded in scoring, but then couldn’t locate the bag and had to abort the celebration. Only at the third attempt did it all come together – goal, drawstring bag, mask, pose. Whole weddings, one feels, have been less time in the planning and execution than Aubameyang’s masked goal celebration.

Still, that quantity of readiness didn’t buy him much admiration from the less liberal commentators on the game. On Talksport, Jason Cundy described the gesture as “pathetic”, urged the player to “grow up”, and said the gimmick was “like something out of Only Fools and Horses”. The last of those allegations might have stuck more firmly had Aubameyang dressed as Batman. But he didn’t – largely, one supposes, because he had already done that, while celebrating a goal for Borussia Dortmund, his previous club. (His teammate Marco Reus joined him as Robin/Rodney.) In fact, this was the striker’s third trip to the dressing-up box, following a similar turn as Spider-Man while playing for St-Étienne in France.

And this despite the consequences. As well as some predictably short shrift from Talksport, his mask earned Aubameyang the more immediate censure of a yellow card from the referee. A yellow card is also the statutory punishment for players who celebrate goals by removing their shirts, something the game has elected not to tolerate, although it remains open to question whether that’s because football can’t bear to encourage male nudity, or because the shirt sponsors don’t want their logos torn from view at the moment of maximum exposure. Either way, the penalty for unnecessarily removing an item of clothing turns out to be the same as the penalty for unnecessarily putting one on.

Still, this is where we are, and it might explain the tenacity of a rumour that recently took hold about the striker Mario Balotelli, formerly of Manchester City but now with Marseille. The story was that Balotelli had gone out to face Paris St-Germain wearing beneath his kit a T-shirt bearing the image of Marcus Rashford, whose goal for Manchester United had just sunk PSG in the Champions League. Thus, it was implied, would Balotelli, in the event of scoring, further “troll” the Paris side and its followers with the image of their recent nemesis.

Now, the player eventually denied this story flatly, describing it as “bullshit”. Yet, in a world in which players were planting Black Panther masks, how perfectly plausible it had felt. As it was, in the game in question, Balotelli didn’t score and PSG won 3-1, so the shirt would have been wasted in any case. Yet maybe this is routinely the scene in dressing rooms after matches these days – the floors thick with discarded undergarments bearing unexposed insults to fierce rivals, undelivered messages of support for sick children, hymns to new babies that would have gone out to the world but for the width of a post. And perhaps the odd unused Spider-Man outfit in a drawstring bag. So many unseen undershirts, so many masks unworn, so many dreams and visions come to naught. It’s the story of sport, in its way – and
Instagram’s loss, obviously. 

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency