Laurent N’Dri Pokou died on November 13, 2016, after a long illness. He was 69 years old. Pokou in the 1970s symbolized the success of postcolonial African football and, like his fellow Ivorian, Didier Drogba, many years later, captured the imagination of an entire generation of Africans.
Pokou was born on August 8, 1947, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Growing up in a working-class family, his father worked as a railway company office clerk, football was everywhere. He was first spotted in neighborhood matches by a talent scout from ASEC Mimosas, one of Abidjan’s two powerhouse clubs (the other being Africa Sports).
ASEC quickly signed Pokou and deemed him so valuable that when the Pokou family relocated to the northern city of Bouaké in 1962, the club sent for the youngster and managed to convince his family to allow Laurent to return to Abidjan. Once back with Mimosas, Pokou sharpened his skills and transformed into an archetypal goalscorer: mobile, opportunistic, a fine dribbler, and clinical finisher. It was no surprise that he earned his first call up to Ivory Coast’s national team—known as the Elephants—just in time for the 1968 African Cup of Nations in Ethiopia.
In the semifinal in Asmara (then part of Ethiopia), 21-year-old Pokou netted twice in Ivory Coast’s 4-3 extra time loss to Ghana. He also scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Ethiopia in the third-place final. Pokou’s six goals meant he was crowned top scorer of the continental showcase.
Two years later, at the African Cup of Nations in Sudan, Pokou confirmed his status as one of the most prolific African strikers of his time. His five goals in a 6-1 rout of Ethiopia put the world on notice. The Elephants reached the semifinals, but once again lost to Ghana’s Black Stars in extra time. Pokou’s eight goals made him the tournament’s top scorer for a second consecutive time and his fourteen goals set a career scoring record for the African Cup of Nations. (Twenty-six years later, Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon finally broke it.)
Unfortunately, in February 1971 Pokou suffered a terrible knee injury during a typically combative ASEC vs. Africa Sports derby. After an operation in France and seven months of diligent rehabilitation, he returned to the pitch.
Meanwhile, according to the French journalist Alain Prioul, author of a biography of Pokou, the Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny had been preventing a number of overseas clubs from securing Pokou’s services. Finally, in December 1973 the president dropped his opposition to a transfer. ASEC, having won two league titles in a row, sold Pokou to French club Stade Rennaise (aka Rennes).
As soon as he arrived in Brittany, the Ivorian striker began to deliver. Playing only the second half of the 1973/74 season, he scored seven goals in thirteen matches. The following season, Pokou increased his goal total to fourteen, but Rennes were relegated to the second division.
In 1975/76, he was having a brilliant year with seventeen goals in just twelve matches when he suffered another serious knee injury. After an operation and rehabilitation, he returned to the starting side and contributed six goals in the final stretch of the season.
In 1976/77 Pokou transferred to Nancy where he played alongside future three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Michel Platini. But bad luck struck again: another knee injury! This latest setback sharply curtailed his playing time over two physically and emotionally painful seasons. Pokou decided to return to Rennes for the 1978/79 season, even if that meant playing in the second division. His injury-plagued career in France ended on a sour note: he assaulted a referee on the pitch and received an eighteen-month suspension.
Pokou returned home to ASEC Abidjan in 1980. He earned two more caps for Ivory Coast at the 1980 African Cup of Nations before retiring. After hanging up his boots, Pokou spent many years as a youth development coach for the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF) and also served as a FIFA Ambassador.
Long before Didier Drogba became a household name, another talented, though distinctly less fortunate, Ivorian named Laurent Pokou did much to strengthen African football’s self-confidence and to legitimize the continent’s players status as big-time stars in the global game.
This video honors the Brazilian team Chapecoense and the victims of the tragic air crash that killed at least 71 people in Medellin, Colombia, on November 29, 2016.
May they rest in peace.
For further reading click here and here.
Filed under: Video
The story of Abongile Elton Qobisa, also known as the “Xhosa Maradona,” has not been covered by ESPN, SKY, SABC, or FIFA media. But Tarminder Kaur, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State in South Africa, is determined not to allow us to forget him.
On October 27, the moving tale about Qobisa will be the subject of the Football Scholars Forum’s 37th session. Kaur’s paper is based on ethnographic fieldwork in the Western Cape region. It engages critically with “sport-for-development” discourses and its limits, a topic Pelle Kvalsund and Hikabwa Chipande, among others, have written extensively about on this blog.
“In contemporary South Africa,” Kaur writes, “soccer is discursively portrayed as a tool for ‘development’ and socialization of ‘black’ youth living in structurally constrained conditions. Indeed, it is the stories of ‘rags to riches’ through sport talent and success that continue to spark imagination for possibilities through soccer for the marginalized and those in need of ‘development.'”
The paper deftly critiques these discourses by presenting an intriguingly diverse cast of male characters. Readers are introduced to passionate township players, devoted coaches, hardcore fans, and well-meaning patrons of the game. Through numerous oral interviews and personal observations, the study reveals the multiple ways in which young black men from humble circumstances “create and find meaning in practices of soccer.” In a context of economic insecurity and social instability, the author highlights how “talent and opportunities in soccer were both a gift and a curse for the amaXhosa Maradona.”
To participate in the online forum, please visit the FSF website.
Click here for the Sport in Africa web dossier compiled by the African Studies Library at Leiden University.
Filed under: Fútbology
The Football Scholars Forum opened its 2016-17 season on September 19 with a discussion of James Dorsey’s long-awaited new book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
A journalist and Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Dorsey’s blog “(has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture” on Middle East soccer and politics, according to FSF member Alon Raab, who teaches at the University of California Irvine.
Twenty participants spread out across North and South America, Africa, Europe, and, naturally, the Middle East engaged in a lively online discussion with the author. Dorsey began by describing the origin of the project and a disclaimer that he is neither a player or fan of the game. The book, he stated, is about politics, not soccer. But he immediately qualified this quasi-heretical statement (among fútbologists, at least) by stressing that sports and politics are always linked, though at different levels of intensity depending on the place and time.
Dorsey emphasized the importance of young Egyptian ultras in the overthrow of Mubarak and of stadiums as spaces of mobilization, dissent, and censorship. A particularly interesting thread of the forum was the focus on social media as scholarly sources–“cyber-ethnography”–and also as an invaluable space for public discourse.
Prompted by new questions, Dorsey shared his thoughts on gender issues; the limited influence of “Muscular Islam” in its diverse interpretations (from conservative to liberal) on the region’s football culture; racial and ethnic discrimination; and how the failed July 15 coup in Turkey means soccer fans have been caught in the wider web of repression carried out by the Erdogan regime.
Despite the grim status quo for people and football in war-ravaged Syria, Dorsey closed on an optimistic note, arguing that we are at the beginning of a long process of potentially positive change in the Middle East. Time will tell, but what is certain is that the game will continue to serve “as an arena where struggles for political control, protest and resistance, self-respect and gender rights are played out.”
Click here for an audio recording of the session.
For information about the next Football Scholars Forum on October 27, please visit footballscholars.org.
Filed under: Fútbology
Guðmundur Benediktsson who?
On Wednesday, June 22, the 41-year-old Icelandic announcer’s emotional call of Iceland’s winning goal against Austria at Euro 2016 went viral. The moment was immediately enshrined into the unofficial Hall of Fame of soccer broadcasting.
Benediktsson is no ordinary broadcaster. He played for Iceland from 1994 to 2001 and has coached steadily since the end of his playing career in 2009, most recently as an assistant at KR Reykjavík — the tiny island nation’s most celebrated club. The family love of the game extends to Benediktsson’s 19-year-old son, Albert Guðmundsson, who is on the books of PSV Eindhoven, and whose mother is a former Iceland international.
Iceland and Austria were in stoppage time, with the score tied 1-1. Austria, needing to win to advance to the second round, was launching its final desperate attacks. Iceland was deep in its defensive bunker, knowing a point would be enough to earn an historic qualification to the knockout phase.
With 45 seconds left, the Icelandic defense brutishly clears a ball, which randomly finds Bjarnason all alone charging full speed ahead towards the Austrian goal. In the blink of an eye, a three-on-one breakaway develops.
Benediktsson does more than announce the Iceland players’ excited forward movement. He seems to thrust them towards the Austrian goal.
There will be no running out the clock by the corner flag. No way. Iceland are beyond the point of no return.
Bjarnason slices a deliciously inviting assist across the penalty box. Traustason, a substitute, slides in at the far post and strikes the ball with his left foot.
Benediktsson’s first eruption literally encourages the ball into the net, past the outstretched hands of the diving Austrian goalkeeper: “Jaaaa!”
“Jaaaa! Jaaaa! Jaaaa! Jaaaa!” Benediktsson loses it. His primal scream is like “a ‘do’ sung [in Icelandic] from the chest that would leave Caruso forever mute,” in the words of Eduardo Galeano.
It’s more than orgasmic. “Maybe if I hadn’t made love for eighteen years, and had given up hope of doing so for another eighteen, and then suddenly, out of the blue, an opportunity presented itself,” Nick Hornby reminds us in Fever Pitch, “maybe in these circumstances it would be possible to recreate an approximation of that [. . .] moment.”
The Polish referee, Szymon Marciniak, blows the whistle. It’s over! Iceland 2, Austria 1. Iceland is through to the last 16.
Benediktsson, exhausted, goes quiet.
Should Iceland pulls off a miraculous victory against England on Monday (June 27), Benediktsson’s performance may surpass the one that made him world famous.
Filed under: Video
Fatma Samba Diop Samoura of Senegal, a career United Nations diplomat, was recently appointed by FIFA President Gianni Infantino as the world body’s new secretary general. “She will bring a fresh wind to FIFA—someone from outside,” Infantino declared.
Listen to my radio interview with Assumpta Oturu as we discuss the significance of Samoura’s appointment and its possible implications for substantive reforms at scandal-ridden FIFA.
The interview originally aired on KPFK’s “Spotlight Africa” program on June 3, 2016.
Ted Dumitru, the Romanian-born coach who had a successful career in South Africa, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack on Thursday at Eastgate Shopping Centre in Johannesburg.
“Throughout our conversations over the years,” recalls Zola Doda in a touching tribute published on Kick Off magazine’s website, “Ted didn’t talk a lot about his country of birth, Romania, which came across as strange to me in the beginning. All he spoke about was South Africa and the African continent as a whole—but over a period time I learned to understand how much he really loved this country and this continent.”
Having coached briefly in the U.S., where he acquired citizenship, Dumitru took the helm of Zambia’s national team in 1981 and later that of Swaziland. He arrived in apartheid South Africa to coach Kaizer Chiefs in 1986, a time of mass protests and army troops deployed in the black townships. Dumitru went on to win four league titles, with Sundowns (1997-98 and 1998-99) and Chiefs (2003-04 and 2004-05), and also had a brief stint as national team coach.
Beyond his clubs’ successes, Dumitru had a major impact on South African coaching education and on youth development. I saw this personally and tracked it over two decades in South Africa and from overseas.
I first met Ted Dumitru in 1995. A friend I had met on the soccer pitch at Wits University took me to the South African Football Association’s first coaching certification course held at the School of Excellence. I was introduced to Dumitru, then the Director of Coaching at SAFA, who was dressed in his typical sweatsuit-and-baseball cap attire. As soon as he learned of my work on the history of football in South Africa, he asked me to return the following morning and give a formal presentation to the coaches. Dumitru believed a country needed to know its football history in order to develop its national identity.
The next day I faced an engaged audience that included Patrick Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, Cedric “Sugar Ray” Xulu, Neil Tovey and many other legendary figures in the South African game. If that context wasn’t intimidating enough, I was also scheduled to follow the charismatic Clive Barker, then-national team coach who, a few months later, would lead Bafana Bafana to their first (and still only) African Nations Cup title.
Dumitru introduced me in a graciously professional and courteous way, which made me feel less intimidated by the moment and helped set the tone for what turned out to be a constructive session and dialogue among the participants.
During that visit, I learned of Dumitru’s background in Romania in the late 1960s and 1970s. I listened to him discuss the emergence of “scientific football” as popularized by Valeriy Lobanowski, the legendary coach of Dynamo Kiev and the USSR. At the time, it was a pioneering approach. It brought together empirical data, computer technology, Soviet collectivist ideology, and Dutch total football. It transformed the way Dumitru conceived, organized, and managed football teams. As Jonathan Wilson succinctly puts it, “football was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections between them.”
To his credit, Dumitru’s experiences in southern Africa altered his football philosophy and practice to reflect local conditions. Dumitru passionately believed in the technical proficiency, dynamism, and creativity of local players. He spent much of the latter part of his career teaching both young boys and adult coaches how to draw on these strengths while combining them with aspects of scientific football. In the words of Mark Gleeson, Dumitru became “an outspoken proponent of the establishment of a so-called ‘ South African style of play’ with heavy emphasis on individual flair.”
This emphasis was clearly demonstrated before my eyes again in 2010—a magical year for South Africa as it successfully hosted the first World Cup played on African soil. Dumitru came to Pietermaritzburg to help train local coaches and in the process supervised a training session at the Izichwe Youth Football program, where I was involved. His principles were put into action, as he encouraged each and every player to think about space, quick decision-making, smart passing, confidence in dribbling, relationship with teammates, and to be unafraid of expressing joy on the pitch. When one boy scored a mesmerizing goal but did not celebrate, Dumitru encouraged him to do so: “Soccer is supposed to be fun!” he exclaimed.
Dumitru, of course, had his shortcomings. According to Gleeson, he was perceived by many as “dogmatic” and few can forget his public statement that South Africa’s first-round exit from the 2006 African Nations Cup was partly due to the fact that “my players don’t know how to play in the rain.”
Even so, Dumitru should be remembered as an innovative coach who left an important legacy in South Africa. He introduced new ideas from eastern Europe at a time when the country was isolated from international football and when South African coaching was dominated by English-speaking whites. Dumitru stands out as a rare white coach who genuinely believed in decolonizing South African football. To the end, he practiced what he preached. At the time of his passing, Dumitru was in town to give a speech at the South African Football Coaches’ Association Youth Coaching Seminar at Johannesburg Stadium.