Ivorian Laurent Pokou, the legendary marksman, who scored five goals in a single 1970 Cup of Nations match – a 46-year unbroken record – recently passed away in Abidjan, at the age of 69. Frank Simon looks back at his incredible career, in Africa and Europe.
When anyone enters Sol Béni, the headquarters of top Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas, on the banks of the Ébrié Lagoon in Abidjan, one can’t miss five giant letters painted in yellow: P-O-K-O-U, with a football on top of the K.
Laurent Pokou is inextricably linked to the history of ASEC, a club that is, alongside rivals Africa Sports, at the heart of Ivorian football.
And for followers of the old French first division in the 1970s, he was one of the first Africans to become a major star, with Rennes, while Michel Platini, the France football legend, was still an apprentice at Nancy.
Born on 10 August 1947, ASEC had already spotted Pokou’s talent at the tender age of 10. But he had to move to Bouaké, when his father had a change of employment.
At the tender age of 16, Pokou became a striker for USFRAN Bouaké, the local club. It was just a stint, as it was not long before ASEC got their nugget back, in 1966.
But it took until the end of that year before Wognin Ignace, the ASEC coach, was ready to start him.
Pokou didn’t take long to make an impression, as his exploits led Paul Gévaudan, the French coach of “Les Elephants,” the national team, to pick the 21-year-old for the 1968 Nations Cup in Ethiopia.
Côte d’Ivoire finished third, and Pokou emerged as the tournament’s top scorer with six goals. His brace against Ghana, then the top side in the continental game, earned him the “Man of Asmara” moniker.
The ‘Duc de Bretagne’ stands amongst the greatest African talents to have graced the European game.
Two years later, in Sudan, the “Baoule Emperor” – another of his monikers, was more lethal, with eight goals and his second successive “golden boot” title.
With 14 goals in two Nations Cups, Pokou remained the tournament’s top scorer for 38 years, until his record was broken at Ghana 2008, by Samuel Eto’o. But the former Barcelona and Inter Milan forward needed 5 tournaments to break a record that Pokou set in just two!
Pokou had a difficult 1971, when he broke his knee, in a fierce derby with city rivals Africa Sports, needing months of recuperation but eventually coming back stronger.
He was a part of the CAF-selected team that participated in the 1972 “mini World Cup” in Brazil and at the end of 1973, he decided to leave ASEC and signed for French club Rennes. Pokou’s first attempt to leave the country was stopped by Ivorian soldiers, who did not want their crown jewel to go.
Between 1974 and 1977, Pokou became the “Duc de Bretagne” (the Duke of Brittany), scoring 44 goals in 63 games, during four seasons in which he was often injured.
He helped Rennes get to the top division but their stay was short-lived and with his reputation in the ascendant, he moved to Nancy, while the legendary Michel Platini was still learning his trade, as a youngster.
But it was a frustrating time for the “Duke”, as the coach refused to give him a regular place in Nancy’s starting team.
After a difficult season and a half with Nancy, Rennes, now back in the second division, decided to call on their old talisman, now 31 and still convinced he had the magic touch, to return. Rennes supporters helped raise the fee of 70,000 francs needed to bring him back to the club – a lot of money at the time.
But it was a return that ended sadly for him, as his career at Rennes, and in European football, ended with a two-year suspension, for insulting and kicking a referee in a French cup game. That ban was subsequently reduced to six months.
Banned but still on the books of Rennes, ASEC decided to buy out Pokou’s contract and bring their son home.
His Nations Cup career with “Les Elephants” ended in 1980, with the team failing to get past the tournament’s group stages, and he began his coaching career whilst still a player with ASEC. In 1982, he joined Rio Sport d’Anyama as a player-coach and helped them get promotion. His last managerial position was as an assistant coach to the Belgian, Philippe Garot at ASEC in 1989, after which he left management for good. Pokou worked for a textile company until his retirement in 2005.
Pokou was a valued adviser to the ASEC president Roger Ouegnin and helped FIF, the Ivorian Federation, to scout for young talent. He was an icon for the next generation of Ivorian superstars, like Didier Drogba, even though they never saw him play.
Alongside Malian Salif Keita, another legend of the African game, Pokou is certainly amongst the top players in French football history.
Pokou never won the AFCON but played in four editions – 1968, 1970, 1974 and 1980. Neither did he win the African Golden Ball award created in 1970 by France Football, the French weekly magazine, but he finished second in 1970, behind Keita, fourth in 1971 and third in 1973, just a handful of votes behind the TP Mazembe duo of Tshimen Bwanga and Mwamba Kazadi.
Before his death, Pokou, acknowledged as a wise man, carefully chose how he spent his time.
He could be seen sometimes at football functions, or at the stadium. He was at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to cheer the Elephants.
“He was a good man and we will miss him terribly,” said Roger Boli, a former player and the brother of Basile, the ex-Marseille star.
It would be no surprise if the Ivorian government names the next national stadium, to be built in Ebimpe, on the outskirts of Abidjan, after him, as a lasting mark of respect for the “Man of Asmara”. His place in the pantheon of African football legends is secure.