Thursday, January 17, 2008

LAURENT POKOU ...African Cup of Nations All-Time Top Scorer

One of the legends of African Football is POKOU LAURENT who set an all-time recprd of 14 goals in. the African Nation Cup in the 1960s and 1970s. CFI correspondent PETER LAW writes on this immaculate striker from Vote d’Ivoire whose record may be difficult to equal for modern-day strikers....

WHILE the likes of Eusebjo, Wharton ar~d ~3en Barek spent most of their fon*balljn~ ~ in Europe, Laurent Pokou played a larger section ef his career in Africa, and was one player who could truly he said to have set the African Nations Cup alight with his goalscoring exploJts for the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire, although never finishing, a winner.
Born into a large family in the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, in February 1947, the young Laurent grew up with a football as his constant companion through his school days. Signing his first player’s license at nine years old withASEC Abidj an, the youn1 Laurent developed his genre, emerging from street ootball as an exciting forward who showed promise in front of goal.
Moving to Bouake for a time in 1962, he played with USRAN, quickly establishing a reputation as the best forwar a er in the region. Word spread back
particularly back to ASEC, who wasted no -time in bringing Pokou back to the capital. Trainer Wognin already hard one prolific forward in Eustace Mangle, and linking him up with the ~ oung Pokou proved to e an inspired move. ASEC won the first league championship in 1964 led by their new strike force, earning:
Mangle a striking place in the national, team preparing for their Nations Cup debut in Tunisia.
National team handler Gevaudan callea up Mangle, who scored a fine hat trick in a 3-0 win over Congo Kinshasa (now Congo DR) on his debut in the. competition, but chose to leave young Pokou at home. With no World I Cup qualifying action due to the African withdrawaf from the 1966 qualifiers, it was not until the Ethiopia ‘68 Nations Cup that Pokou first tasted a major tournament with the Elephants. Having dumped Nigeria out of. the qualifiers, the side arrived in Ethiopia as. outsiders, with their first opponents, Algeria, considered the favourites to carry off the title defended by Ghana.
Scoring in either half, Pokou helped his team to an impressive 6-0 victory on his finals debut, then. failed to score against the host in a 1-0 defeat. However~ against Uganda in Addis Ababa, both Pokou and Mangle scored in a 2-1 victory that was good enough to ensure progress to the semi-final. That year, both semis produced classic drama with Zaire defeating the host 3-2 in extra time, while the Elephants faced off against the .holders, Ghana’s famous. Black Stars. Trailing by 0-1 at the break, back came the Elephants who forced the game into overtime before going down by 4-3, Pokou scoring two goals to take his tally to~ five.
Meeting - hosts Ethiopia once again for the third place, a single goal by the now inevitable Pokou won the game and the medals for his teair~ Watching scouts at the tournament had just one name at the top of their lists after the tournament, that of the tall, slim Ivorian striker who finished as six goal topscorer at his first finals. ASEC realised that they would have to fight to retain their prize possession with a pose of foreign clubs declaring an interest, headed by Marseille and Nantes from France. Pokous time was not coming with a vengeance.
However Pokou -remained with ASEC, winning the Ivorian Cup three times in succession — 1967, 1968 and 1969, while in the league the club were unable to break the predominance of city rivals SteTh d’Abidjan and Africa Sports despite Pokou’s scoring feats.
‘While life in domestic football was not always paved with success, Pokou continued to shine with the Elephants. Some months after the Ethiopia ‘68 Nations Cup finals, German trainer Peter Schnigger arrived to coach the Elephants and adopted a more attacking policy. With Kallet, the playmaker, in a 4-2-4 formation, and Pokou the goalscoring destroyer, the side breezed past Mali (Pokou himself grabbing a hat trick) to qualify for another crack at the Nations Cup in Sudan.
His first Nations Cup finals had been productive, his second finals proved a ‘tour de force’ and proved that this man was no short term wonder. From the opening match against Cameroun in Khartoum, Pokou chased goals. Two first half strik~s put the Elephants 2-0 up at the break against Cameroun, who managed to come back to win a thrilling match 3-2. Two days later, the Elephants defeated the host Sudan by 1-0 to keep hopes of advancement alive, which rested with the final group game against Ethiopia. lVfengistou and his teammates turned around at halftime trailing by 2-1 with Pokou scoring the second Ivorian goal.~ There must have been something in the halftime drink that agreed with Pokou for, in the second half, he went out and struck four more goals to round off a 6-1 win, finishing with a five-goal haul, something never subsequently beaten at the Nations Cu p finals.
That win was enough to send the Elephants into the semis, where they once again met neighbours Ghana in another classic which needed extra time to separate the sides. For once “Pok” failed to get on the scoresheet as the Anglophone side prevailed on a 2-1 scoreline. A late goal in the third-place showdown with Egypt was not enough to win a medal as Egypt’s Chalzly (another prolific strik&r) had already nabbed a hat-trick, but left Pokou having shattered his own six goal tally of 1968 and finishing with a new record of eight goals in the finals or in total, 14 goals at just two finals series.
Returning home as a huge star, his form remained constant in helping his club ASEC to complete a league and cup double in the 1970 season, just the second league title for the Mimosas. With the new awards of “African Foothaller of the Year introduced by the French ma azine “France Footbail~ up and running for 1970. Pokou collected 24 votes, only to be well beaten into second place by Salif Keita, Saint Etienne’s Malian sensa- -tion who had not even appeared in the Nations Cup that year, and yet grabbed the majority of the nominations.
The threat of injury is ever-prevalent for an established game striker and in the Abidjan derby against arch rivals Africa Sports, Pokou suf fered a bad knee injury, colliding with the oppo ing keeper, while cha ing a goal. Transported to Lyon,~ France, he made a slow and painful recovery.
Without him, ASEC finished the se son trophyless, the first Champions Cup entry ending in the semi-final against C~inon Yaounde, while the Elephants were removed in the qualifiers for the Cameroun ‘72 Nations Cup by Congo who went on to win the title. Pokou’s absence. had a negative effect for both club and country.
Showing his determination, Laurent bounced back to resume his terrorism upon the opposing defenders, helping~ ASEC to a position of dominance on the domestic scene. One reward was selection for the African team that went to Brazil in May of 1972 to compete in a Mini World Cup, but the trip was both long and problematic, the side winning just once in the final game against
Colombia. Pokou
inevitably scored the opening goal in a 3-0 victory but it was his only joy from the tournament where he played in all four games. In both 1972 and 1973, ASEC were back to championship and cup doubles, but were unable to follow that by making progress in the Champions Cup. Hafia of Conakry eroded hopes in 1973, ensuring that Pokou would never appear in a continental final.
Since the 1968 Nations Cup, scouts had been chasing “Pok” with growing desire, yet the star man remained loyal to ASEC despite all the offers. Then finally a transfer to France was put in p lace.
In a e December of 1973, Pokou made his final appearance with the Mimosas, commencing his, professional career with Stade de Rennes in the French first division. However within months, he was• called away from his new club to lead the Elephants attack in the 1974 Nations Cup in Cairo.
Cote dIvoire found themselves without their star striker for theii first two games, which ended in a loss and a draw. Facing the hosts in their final group outing, Pokou returned as skipper, but was unable to inspire his teammates who surrendered by 2-0. For once, his finals had finished without a single goal to show for his efforts. Moreover, he could only admire the new scorip’~ sensation N’diaye p Zaire who shattered hieight goal finals record I by hitting nine in Egypt.
Back at Rennes, the club finished in midtable but the very next season, found themselves rele-[ gated. Often the victim~ of rough marking, Pokou was frequently out of action recovering from the inevitable battering that he took as part of the job. Winning promotion the next season Pokou was part of I
Second Division I
Champions in season’ ‘75/76, but soon found~ himself transferring to Nantes, playing in a side I that contained a young
and emerging Michel Platini. Still troubled bS’ injuries, his career at Nantes was brief, and within a year, Pokou was back with Rennes. -However, it was not to
prove a happy return, finding himself involved in an argument with a refetee, which ended with Pokou assaulting the-official.
A two year ban was the result of his actions and disillusion with the professional game set in, Unable to play in France,’ the Pokou family found themselves back in Abidjan once again. Returning to ASEC for a second spell, the great striker was no longer the man who had departed back in 1973. Now into his 30s, injury had taken its toll upon one of Africa’ brightest talents, but even at 33 years of age, this man was not finished.
Whilst Pokou was away in France, the Elephants failed to qualify for the 1976 and 1978 Nations Cup finals and after a six-year absence from the finals, Laurent returned to the squad for the Nigria 1980 final series.
However, there was to be no happy ending, nor any more goals to add to his grand tally. His fourth and final Nations Cup in Nigeira saw him start the opening match in defeat agailnst Egypt before finding himself as a substitute for the encounter with the hosts. Unable to find a goal in the goalless draw, he found himself left out of the final game with Tanzania as the side made an early departure.
The Ivorians only made their first World Cup entry in the 1974 qualifiers, Pokou adding goals as the side went to the penultimate round in both 1974 (ended by Morocco) and 1978, when Nigeria proved the victors. With no Olympic final possibilities, Pokou’s true fame in world football was somewhat stifled, his greatest days coming when little outside attention was paid to African football, and not too much made it on film. Pokou’s currency was goals, his game lethal in finishing both with his feet and also renowned for his ability with his head. While his record is not too well documented, he certainly wrote his name large in two classic Nations Cups of 1968 and 1970.
Winding down his career with his beloved ASEC, “Pok” later moved into coaching, passing on his knowledge to the young footballers, and enjoying a degree of success in his new employ.
As a player/coach, he helped Rio sports of Anyama to promotion to the top flight, later taking over an Union Sportif of Yamoussoukro. Even with his playing days over, there was still a dep love for the game, still plenty to pass to others, and in his native country strikers will always be compared to this great, the first of a line of excellent stars from the small West African country that continues today.
Laurent Pokou wrote a distinguished chapter into the annals of Ivorian football, and left his indelible imprint upon the Nations Cup record books. Nobody since has eclipsed his 14-goals record, although Nigerian Rashidi Yekini is one goal behind him on 13 final goals while the like of his compatriots Youssef Fofana, Joel Teihi and Abdoulaye Traore followed in his wake, but never bettered his achievements.
Although he never was a Nations Cup winner, nor won any African title with ASEC or even played at the World Cup finals, Pokou’s exploits are still legendary in his native country. His professional caraeer perhaps came too late to maximise upon his success and he never won the African Footballeer of the Year title. Regrets, yes there were a few, but these were far overshadowed by the positive he left.
To Laurent Pokou, respect is due.

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