“It’s great that people are saying he’s the star of the tournament, but for me the real stars are the team. They’re the ones who make the difference, just as they’ve done here against Brazil.” Those words were uttered by Côte d’Ivoire coach Alain Gouamene in the press conference that followed his side’s 3-3 draw with the Brazilians in their final game in Group F at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011. And at this stage of the competition it is not hard to guess that the “he” Gouamene was referring to was Souleymane Coulibaly, the player who has scored each and every one of the Elephants’ eight goals in the competition so far.
The prolific Coulibaly is averaging a remarkable 2.66 goals per game at Mexico 2011, just a shade below the tournament average of 2.72. The scorer of two hat-tricks to date, the Ivorian is well clear of his closest pursuers in the race for the adidas Golden Shoe, with Brazil’s Ademilson, New Zealand’s Stephen Carmichael and Yassine Benzia of France all trailing on three goals. The Siena player’s flawless finishing has taken him to within one goal of the all-time competition record of nine, set by France’s Florent Sinama Pongolle at Trinidad and Tobago 2001, when he scored seven in the first round.
We need to stop and remember that we’re talking about a kid who’s not 17 yet and who’s playing in a tournament that hasn’t even finished.
Yet despite his striker’s headline-grabbing feats, Gouamene is looking at the bigger picture: “If we’re going to create a winning mentality, it has to come from the whole team and that’s something I want to get through to the boys between now and Thursday [when his side play France in the last 16]. It can’t all be Coulibaly, Coulibaly.”
Gouamene’s cautious approach reflects his concern at investing all his side’s hopes in a striker showing huge promise, but one who will not turn 17 for another six months. With such young charges on their hands, the Ivorian tactician and his counterparts have to think about far more than formations and game-plans. In playing the additional roles of teacher, guardian and tutor, their job is to protect gifted teenage players from the hype and publicity their sudden emergence can generate.
Coulibaly’s breakthough at Mexico 2011 is a case in point and Gouamene is keen to put things in perspective: “We need to stop and remember that we’re talking about a kid who’s not 17 yet and who’s playing in a tournament that hasn’t even finished.”
Goals of every shape and size
The conundrum now facing the Elephants’ boss is that the task of playing down expectations will be even harder should Coulibaly continue to score goals. And given Côte d’Ivoire’s reliance on his finishing skills, Gouamene will not want to see his star asset lose his touch at this stage of proceedings.
All that was missing from his eight-goal group-phase repertoire, which included just one penalty and is available to watch in the links on the right, was a header. Two of his goals were scored with his left foot, one of them an unstoppable near-post piledriver hit with the outside of his boot against Brazil, and his haul has also included solo efforts, typical poacher’s goals and a superbly executed bicycle-kick, the third of his treble against the Brazilians.
That hat-trick came as an unwelcome surprise to Seleção coach Emerson Avila, whose side had kept clean sheets in their first two games against Denmark and Australia but had no answer to Coulibaly’s penalty-box pyrotechnics.
“The kid in the No19 shirt was fantastic, as he’s been in every game so far,” commented an appreciative Avila. “We knew we’d have a job marking him and he went out and scored three.” Gouamene will also have been pleased to hear the Brazil boss’s warm words of praise for the rest of the Ivorian front line: “Their forwards are excellent with the ball at their feet and they got to the byline a lot, which caused us a lot of problems. Their players are very quick and strong and they’re always looking to score.”
As that appraisal shows, there is more to Côte d’Ivoire than just Souleymane Coulibaly. But as long as he keeps knocking the goals in, he can expect to keep on hogging the limelight.