Laurent Pokou, Ivorian Striker, dies at 69

By | November 15th, 2016 | No Comments



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.

pokou_biographyMeanwhile, 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_rennais_recognizedPokou 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.

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FIFA Appoints African Woman as Secretary General: A Preliminary Assessment

By | June 6th, 2016 | No Comments

Portrait image of Fatma Samoura

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, innovative coach in South Africa, dies at 76

By | May 27th, 2016 | 1 Comment

Ted Dumitru, SAFCA Technical Advisor during the South African Football Coaches Association at SAFA House, Johannesburg on 22 October 2014 ©Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Ted Dumitru at the South African Football Coaches Association, SAFA House, Johannesburg on 22 October 2014 © Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

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.

Johan Cruyff, Football Genius, Dies at 68

By | March 24th, 2016 | 6 Comments



Johan Cruyff, the Dutch football genius, has died of cancer at the age of 68.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, growing up in Rome, my older brother Danny dragged me to a run-down movie theater to watch “Il Profeta del Gol”—a mesmerizing documentary film about Cruyff narrated by the legendary Sandro Ciotti, whose raspy voice (along with that of Enrico Ameri), provided the soundtrack of our every Sunday afternoon.

Watching Cruyff ignited my lifelong love and passion for football. After moving to the United States in the mid-1980s, I wore his number 14 on my high school, club, and college teams.

He seemed both extraordinary and ordinary. His creative use of space, technical excellence, and speed were inseparable from his scrawny physique, tempestuous nature, non-comformist cigarette smoking, and consistent dislike for fitness training. I will go to my grave with Cruyff’s “Impossible Goal” against Atletico Madrid.

Cruyff’s interpretation of football as a competitive art taught me to see alternative ways to play, move, think, and be. Ajax’s “Total Football,” which Cruyff exported to Barcelona, first as a player then as a coach, was so radically different from the way Serie A teams played in the 1970s and early 1980s. “Everyone attacked and everyone defended,” Eduardo Galeano wrote, “deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan.”

His stunning decision to boycott the Generals’ World Cup in Argentina in 1978, the first I followed religiously on television, endeared the Dutchman to me even more. An anti-fascist superstar who practiced what he preached!

Frits Barend, the Dutch tv commentator whom I met in South Africa in 1998, referred to Cruyff as an “obstinate maestro.”

David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, arguably the best book written in English about Dutch football and society, described him as “essentially Dutch.” A poem by Toon Hermans, Winner writes, “captures the feeling that there was something sublime about Cruyff”:

En Vincent zag het koren
En EInstein het getal
En Zeppelin de Zeppelin
En Johan zag de bal

(And Vincent saw the corn
And Einstein the number
And Zeppelin the Zeppelin
And Johan saw the ball)

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“To have a football was to have arrived”

By | March 4th, 2016 | 2 Comments

Vassen_bookBob Vassen’s passing fills me with immense sadness.

 

A great friend to those of us who had the privilege of knowing him. A courageous South African who fought for the freedom of his country, at home and in exile as a member of Umkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation). A committed teacher who mentored thousands of students, young and not so young, internationally. An intellectual who was as incisive as he was humble. Consider his masterful editorial work in Ahmed Kathrada’s Letters from Robben Island, published by Michigan State University Press.

 

And Bobby, as his friends called him, was also a football man. Like his father before him, he had played for one of Johannesburg’s oldest teams: Moonlighters FC, founded by Indian service workers in 1892. Growing up in Fordsburg and Doornfontein, gritty working-class neighborhoods in Johannesburg, “to have a football was to have arrived,” he recalled.

 

A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing him about his football life. You can watch the full interview here.

 

Our heartfelt condolences go out to Ursula and the entire Vassen family. We miss you Uncle Bobby.

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Prison Football League Transforms Lives in Uganda

By | June 12th, 2015 | No Comments

  

Thieves, rapists and murderers in Uganda’s only maximum security prison play for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, Juventus, and . . . Hanover 96.

In a gripping podcast recorded in Luzira, a suburb of Kampala, David Goldblatt tells the story of the Upper Prison Soccer Association (UPSA), “the most elaborate prison football league in the world” (listen here).

What emerges form this radio documentary-style piece is a deeply humanistic portrait of a prisoner-run sporting organization that does more, much more than stage occasional kickabouts.

UPSA injects fun, entertainment, and healthy recreation in the otherwise stultifying  drudgery of life behind bars. Running it requires hard work, sophisticated organization, and tight discipline. It is a complex, sometimes stressful, affair.

But it works. UPSA helps inmates cope with life on the inside as it strives to transform violent criminals into citizens better prepared for what awaits them after their sentences have been served.

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Juve and Me

By | May 14th, 2015 | No Comments

juventus-bernabeu



[iOS users click here to listen.]

Juventus, the Old Lady of Italian football, is in the Champions League final for the first time since 2003. In an interview I did a year ago with Austin Long for the Soccer Nomad podcast, I explain how I came to support the bianconeri in the mid-1970s despite being from Rome.

Since I did not live in Turin, I supported Juve from afar and became religiously devoted to Michel Platini and, years later, to Roberto Baggio.

A day after eliminating Real Madrid to earn a date against Barcelona on June 6 in Berlin, it’s funny to hear my rational, realistic assessment of Juve’s prospects for success in Europe alongside my thoroughly irrational dream of winning the European Cup like Milan did in ’94–by thrashing Barca 4-0!

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