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LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will carry a heavy burden in the African Nations Cup finals with the hopes of the host nation resting squarely on his shoulders.
The Borussia Dortmund marksman enjoys megastar status in Gabon, who host the finals for the second time in five years, and the 27-year-old is expected to deliver the goals that will give the country a realistic chance of a first African title.
He has already brought an unexpected profile to a country short of any soccer success by winning the 2015 African Footballer of the Year award, celebrated in Libreville as if Gabon had won a major tournament.
Aubameyang flew from the ceremony in Nigeria to show off trophy and was given a heroic, near hysterical reception, with live television coverage of his arrival and reception.
"I did well to choose Africa (over France) and I can't dare to imagine what it will be like if we win the Nations Cup at home," he said in an interview with French sports daily L'Equipe on Friday.
The 27-year-old was born in Laval and played one match for the France under-21 team but then chose to play for Gabon, where his father captained the side at their first Nations Cup appearance in 1994.
Since his debut at the age of 20 in 2009, Aubameyang has been the key element of the team but his exploits in the Bundesliga have elevated him to an almost godlike status in the central African country.
"It's all about Aubameyang and what he can deliver for us," said student Michel Ondoma on Friday as the team began their final preparations for the opening match against Guinea Bissau the following day.
The rest of Gabon's team is a motley collection of players drawn from clubs in Belgium's third division, the second tier of Chinese football, lower league French sides and Malta.
Only Mario Lemina of Juventus, a recent addition to the side, comes close to Aubameyang in terms of regular football at the highest level of the club scene in Europe.
"Aubameyang is one of the players who can make a big difference to his team at this tournament. He knows what he can do," added Gernot Rohr, who coached Gabon in 2012 when they co-hosted the finals with Equatorial Guinea.
At that tournament, Gabon went out at the quarter-final stage, eliminated in a penalty shootout where Aubameyang suffered the heartbreak of missing the vital kick.
The images of a tearful and disconsolate Aubameyang being led from the pitch at the end of the contest by his father were among the more abiding from the finals.
"That setback propelled me into another dimension. The people expected an exploit on my part," he said
But he now has a chance to make good on the disappointment and further entrench himself as Gabon's favourite son.
Editing by John O'Brien