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.
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.
Africa is a Country‘s film division is working on an intriguing fútbol project that I just supported on Kickstarter.
What’s it about? Africa’s Premier League is a film that follows four fans—in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and DR Congo—as they live through the highs and lows of a football season as a way to explore popular enthusiasm for “English football” in Africa. The project will also include a web series and a TV series.
“We want to show, in depth and detail, exactly how English football fits into the ordinary lives of African supporters,” say the producers. “Our film will tell the story of Africa’s passion for the English Premier League, through the eyes of the fans themselves.”
Act quickly to help with post-production! Click here to make your Kickstarter donation.
Patrice Evra knows football.
Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1981, Evra moved to France before he could kick a ball properly. He went on to captain both France and Manchester United. In 2014, Juventus paid a meager transfer fee of £1.5 for the 33-year-old left back. In his first season, Evra contributed to a memorable campaign that saw the bianconeri win the League and Cup double and lose a close Champions League final to Barcelona.
Last Sunday, in an interview after Juve’s 2-0 win away to Atalanta, the Frenchman made some insightful comments about the difference between England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A. Evra’s thoughts seemed particularly timely since they came on the heels of widely quoted remarks made by Claudio Ranieri, the Italian manager of Premier League leaders Leicester City.
Ranieri reportedly told the Corriere della Sera that his Leicester players were “afraid of the Italian tactics” and so he quickly decided to “talk very little about tactics” and instead emphasized fitness, hard work, and building trust between members of the squad. Ranieri’s open-minded approach has worked spectacularly well for Leicester, as they are five points clear of Spurs with nine matches left to play.
In the video clip posted here, Evra (speaking in functional Italian) thinks back to his arrival in Turin and what another international star who played with both Manchester United and Juve shared with him. “I remember that [Carlos] Tevez told me: ‘to score a goal here, you need at least 100 chances because they defend so well’.” That is why, Evra says, “even at 34 years of age, I’m learning great things.”
“In England, it’s more of a show. It’s more like two boxers who go at it and then the first guy who gets tired, falls down. But in Italy, it’s more of a game of cesto [unclear what Evra meant here, possibly “chess”]. If you are not tactically good, then you can’t play. Here [in Serie A] you need more intelligence, let’s say, than talent.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether we prefer England’s glamorous Premiership or Italy’s crafty Serie A. That’s a question of personal preference, loyalty, emotion, and memory (or is it nostalgia?). What is more interesting about Evra and Ranieri’s recent interventions is their nuanced understanding of how local forces shape the global game. Without such valuable cultural knowledge, professional frustration and sporting failure can never be too far away.
Ghanaian football legend Charles Kumi Gyamfi, who passed away in September at the age of 85, was honored on Friday, December 18th, with an official state burial in Accra.
Gyamfi began his top-level playing career at Cape Coast Ebusua Dwarfs in 1948-49. After one season, he joined Kumasi’s Asante Kotoko, staying until 1954 and then transferring to the Porcupines’ archenemies: Accra Hearts of Oak. In 1960, Gyamfi became the first Ghanaian to play in Germany, with Fortuna Dusseldorf.
After hanging up his boots, Gyamfi returned to Ghana and coached the national team, the Black Stars, winning three African Nations Cup titles (1963, 1965, 1982).
The video above honors the life of one of Africa’s greatest players. RIP CK.
Nearly a decade ago, I devoured English reporter Andrew Jennings’s scathing investigation into “The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals.”
Now, in a compelling BBC Panorama documentary, Jennings updates the story by digging deeper into FIFA’s most recent and spiraling crisis. The documentary takes viewers to FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and then to the U.S., Brazil, Trinidad, and South Korea.
One of the most interesting revelations in the BBC piece is that the FBI has in its possession potentially damning written evidence alleging that outgoing FIFA President Sepp Blatter has long been aware of the nature and scope of corruption in world soccer.
Another intriguing insight is that Qatar may have paid $117 million to buy votes and win hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup.
In typically relentless and confrontational fashion, the documentary focuses on Jennings’ probe of the ongoing FBI investigation of corrupt FIFA officials and associates from North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
He discusses mounting evidence of kickbacks and bribes paid to acquire TV and sponsorship rights—the charges at the heart of the U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment of high-ranking FIFA men, two of whom have already pleaded guilty to racketeering. Several other FIFA Executive Committee members are in the process of being extradited to the United States.
With the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision this week to uphold the 90-day FIFA suspension of both Blatter and Michel Platini (head of European soccer body UEFA), it is no wonder that Jennings believes the scheduled February 2016 FIFA presidential election is “descending into farce.”