Laurent Pokou – the African Pele
It was with sadness yesterday that the passing of former Rennes and Ivory Coast striker Laurent Pokou was announced. Whilst not necessarily recognisable by name, his impact at both club and country level are still felt today and in the footballing world he will be greatly missed.
After shining for his first club, ASEC Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, Pokou was courted by a number of Ligue 1 sides including Marseille, Monaco and Nantes. He was initially hesitant about a move abroad, but came round to the idea when recuperating from a severe ligament injury in Lyon where he became friends with Saint-Etienne forward Salif Keita. Eventually in 1973 it looked like he was set to sign for Nantes before the military prevented his departure at the airport. It was this delay that ultimately saw him complete a move to Rennes, thanks in no small part to the influence of then Rennes board member Francois Pinault, who had close connections with then President of the Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouet-Boigny and who secured his agreement to allow Pokou to leave. Pinault even had Pokou travel on his own personal plane for the trip to Brittany.
His arrival in Rennes proved timely as the club were struggling near the foot of the table. A goal on his debut for the club away to Troyes gave Rennes a crucial win before he then netted the only goal of the game in his home debut against Lyon. In an instant, a new hero was born. Having debuted in January 1974, his seven goals in 13 games ensured Ligue 1 survival for Rennes. His combination of pace, power and finishing led to praise from many including former international referee Michel Vautrot, who in 1988 claimed: “The players who have impressed me the most? I’m not going to mention the obvious players like Beckenbauer, Pele, Giresse, but I’ve never seen anything like Laurent Pokou in the 1974 Rennes v Saint-Etienne game”. It was in that game that Pokou scored what then Saint-Etienne coach Robert Herbin described as “one of the best goals I’ve ever seen” as Pokou flicked the ball over his head before smashing home a volleyed finish.
— Hinho (@Hinho_) November 13, 2016
Unfortunately for Pokou and Rennes, his second season for the club was plagued by injury. Despite this he still found the net 14 times but it wasn’t enough to ensure survival and the Breton club were relegated to the second tier. Playing Ligue 2, Pokou found himself under pressure from high-profile officials back in the Ivory Coast to leave Rennes with the belief that his talents warranted more prestigious surroundings. Offers from Marseille, Nantes and other teams from outside France came in but Pokou elected to remain with Rennes and honour the contract that he had signed.
It was in Ligue 2 that he went on a then record scoring run of 17 goals in only 11 games early on in the season. Sadly, injuries once again came back to haunt him as he suffered another dreadful injury which kept him out of action for 17 months. His return came in 1977 but he was sadly not at the level he once was and at the end of the season he moved to Nancy. Despite playing alongside Michel Platini, who had proved key in securing Pokou’s move east, the Ivorian never hit the highs of his time with Rennes. In September 1978 he decided to move back to Rennes claiming “this is where I will end my career”. His return, however, proved short-lived as an altercation with a referee in a Coupe de France match in December resulted in the FFF punishing him with a two year suspension. This was eventually reduced to six months but the damage was already done. In 1979 he returned to the Ivory Coast where he achieved only moderate success before retiring in 1983. He did try his hand at coaching but found this hard going and he stepped away from the game in 1988.
His time at Rennes proved a career highlight at club level and 50 goals in 75 matches meant he would forever go down in the record books as one of the clubs greatest strikers.
At international level he achieved further success. His record 14 goals in the African Cup of Nations was only beaten in 2008 by Samuel Eto’o. His form hit such a high level in 1972 that Pele even wrote: “I have found my successor, his name is Laurent Pokou. He only has one fault; he is not Brazilian!” His direct, powerful and skilful attributes proved a template for future players and he was still idolised by many. Following Pokou’s death, Ivory Coast’s record goalscorer Didier Drogba paid tribute by declaring him “the African Pele”. With many others proclaiming “Merci Pokou”, it’s clear he will be missed.