MALABO, Equatorial Guinea – Ivory Coast great Laurent Pokou made the trip to Equatorial Guinea, and now he’s hoping to watch his country win the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 20 years.
The 64-year-old Pokou is second only to Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o in goals scored at the African Cup. He scored a record five goals in one match against Ethiopia in 1970.
“The team has high level players who are very professional and each one of them knows that they have to defend their country’s colours,” Pokou told The Associated Press. “We have the quality to win this cup, but that gives more pressure because every team will raise their level to play against us.”
Pokou held the African Cup scoring record for 38 years until his mark of 14 goals in two tournaments was broken by Eto’o in 2008. It took Eto’o five campaigns to take the lead.
“When Eto’o passed the record, it hurt a bit because every tournament people talked about it,” said Pokou, who has almost the same lean physique he boasted in his playing days. “It helps and it makes me happy in another way because Eto’o is a great player and it’s normal that records are broken. I’m philosophical about it and, anyway, nobody has beaten my record of five goals in a match yet.”
Despite Pokou’s goalscoring exploits, Ivory Coast was unable to win the African Cup during his time. The team finished in third place in 1968 when Pokou scored six goals and was fourth in 1970 when he was again the highest scorer with eight.
Ivory Coast finally won the continental title in 1992 and the current generation of mostly Premier League-based stars like Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba is strongly favoured to repeat the feat.
Unlike today, when Africa’s top talents are snapped up by the big clubs at ever younger ages, Pokou had to wait until he was 27 for a move to Europe.
“It wasn’t easy to leave because I was the best player at my club in Abidjan and the best player for Ivory Coast. Once, when I was at the airport going to France, soldiers came to stop me getting on the plane,” he said.
That wasn’t the only difference Pokou remembers.
“Before, the money that was given to the players was nothing,” he said. “The shirts couldn’t be changed like now because when the match finished they were all collected and used again for the next match.
“Now they can be thrown into the crowd or swapped with the opponent — that was very rare before because you wouldn’t have a shirt to play the next game.”
After his exploits in 1970, Pokou finally arranged a move to Rennes, where he played for four years during two spells at the club in the 1970s.
In between his stints with Rennes, Pokou had two years playing alongside France great Michel Platini at Nancy, an experience he described as “memorable.”
The current Ivory Coast team has attracted criticism for a negative style, but Pokou said he was pleased after a 1-0 opening win against Sudan and successive 2-0 victories against Burkina Faso and Angola to set up a quarterfinal match against co-host Equatorial Guinea.
“We are here to win this cup. You can’t go to war thinking the other guy is going to kill you,” he said. “We have the talent to win, but that’s not enough. You also need the players to stay fit and a good spirit in the group. We have a good coach who knows how to create the conditions to win.”
Ivory Coast defender Souleymane Bamba said having stars from the past around camp is a bonus for the current players.
“It’s massive for us because they have been there before, they’re big names in the country,” Bamba said. “We listen to them a lot because they give us some very good advice.”