Côte d'Ivoire possess a sizeable attacking threat as they go in search of a third FIFA World Cup™ qualification, with Didier Drogba, Wilfried Bony, Lacina Traore and Seydou Doumbia all capable of striking terror into defences across the Mother Continent. Now the Elephants can count on another big name in African football, Kevin Zougoula, who recently squeezed into the Ivorian squad to face Gambia. Despite his diminutive stature (1.66m), the forward’s reputation is steadily growing in his home nation.
"Sure, I'm not big in size, but it’s far from being a handicap," Zougoula told FIFA.com. "God made me this way, but he also gave me a gift for playing centre-forward. And in that position, it’s work and efficiency that make the difference, not centimetres," added the striker, who plays for reigning Ivorian champions Sewe San Pedro. It stands to reason that his role model is Lionel Messi: "I have the same characteristics as him: power and speed."
But just like his hero La Pulga, Zougoula is used to towering over the opposition when it comes to the goalscorers’ charts. The leading marksman in the Ivorian Ligue 1 for the past three seasons, Zougougoal — as he is aptly known — is also well on the way to clinching the CAF Champions League Golden Boot 2012/13. "A striker has only one objective, which is to score,” continues Sewe’s star sharpshooter. “I just do my best to fulfil this objective, whichever competition I’m involved in. And here I'm on a roll!”
Come what may, Zougoula’s five-goal tally has so far given his club, the only Ivorian team still in the Champions League, every chance of reaching the semi-finals. His hat-trick helped Sewe shine in a 3-1 group-stage victory over Angolan side Recreativo do Libolo at the beginning of August, before they were brought back down to earth in their next match by a 1-0 home reverse at the hands of last year’s runners-up, Tunisian side Esperance de Tunis.
"Esperance are not a small team," reflected Zougoula a few hours before the return match in Tunis. "There was very little between us, we had chances but couldn’t put them away, whereas they were basically able to take one of the few opportunities they created. That’s how it goes,” he mused, before adding: “But there's still everything to play for and we firmly believe in our title chances.”
The Ivorian Federation has pulled out all the stops to maximise its chances of success in the tournament, starting with the omission of Zougoula and his club team-mate Sylvain Gbohouo from Les Elephants’ squad in their last friendly match against Mexico.
On the subject of his third-choice goalkeeper Gbohouo, Elephants coach Sabri Lamouchi said: "We took the option of leaving him at the disposal of his club, Sewe Sport, which is involved in the CAF Champion League, because we believe it is important that Ivorian clubs are part of the cream of African football." As for Zougoula, Lamouchi reserved a word of praise: "He’s one of several players that I like in the Ivorian league. My staff will continue to monitor his progress."
The 25-year-old front man is clearly determined to force his way back into the Côte d’Ivoire line-up. "I hope to have another chance with the Elephants. I’ll continue to work. I believe," said Zougoula, who is well also aware that a detour via Europe might accelerate his path back into the national side. "It was seeing the development of players like Didier Drogba and Kalou Bonaventure that made me want to play this sport. My dearest wish was to join the footballing fraternity and I have achieved it. Now I dream of wearing the colours of clubs as prestigious as the ones they have played for."
But for now, Kevin Zougoula is content to continue banging the international drum on home soil: "I’m very proud of the path I’ve taken. There aren’t many forwards who can boast of having been the top scorer in the same league three times in a row!"