Football-mad Ivorians gear up to host Africa Cup of Nations

A vendor waits for costumers while selling football kits belonging to different clubs and national teams at a market stall ahead of the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations in Abidjan on January 6, 2024. AFP

White balloons bid fans “Akwaba” or “Welcome” in the local Akan language, team shirts are selling like hot cakes at the markets and the national side’s colours already adorn adverts in the streets.

In football-mad Ivory Coast, excitement has reached fever pitch ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations kick-off on Saturday.

It’s been 40 years since the West African country last hosted the competition and its success is a top priority for its leaders who hope to showcase how far Ivory Coast has come.

Twenty-four teams will battle it out this time — compared to just eight in 1984.

Malian, Senegalese and Ivorian traders at Cocody market in central Abidjan are fervently convinced their side has what it takes to grasp victory.

“Ivory Coast will beat Mali in the final!” said one. “No way, it’ll be Senegal,” retorted another.

Even the likely traffic chaos on match days during the month-long competition can’t dampen the enthusiasm in the already congested Ivorian economic capital.

“It’ll be a crazy atmosphere because everyone knows Ivory Coast, a country of joy and happiness!” 21-year-old Lassina Kanta enthused.

He is hoping to see the opening match between Guinea-Bissau and the host nation, who were winners in 1992 and 2015.

‘Celebration of African brotherliness’

Apart from Abidjan which boasts two stadiums, matches will be held in the capital Yamoussoukro, the central city of Bouake, the southwestern port of San Pedro and Korhogo in the north.

“I’ve never had the chance to see an Africa Cup of Nations. I’m a happy man today. I won’t miss a match at the stadium,” mechanic Oumar Doumbia in Bouake vowed.

The Ivorian government has invested $1.5 billion to try to ensure the competition goes without a hitch.

Six stadiums have either been built or renovated. Bridges, roads, hotels and accommodation for the players have all gone up in the last few years.

Since September, preparations have seen a concerted boost.

“Let’s mobilise to make this AFCON a big celebration of youth, of Ivorian hospitality and African brotherliness,” President Alassane Ouattara said in his New Year’s address.

In the run-up, recently appointed Prime Minister Robert Beugre Mambe, who has also taken over as sports minister, stepped up visits to host cities to ensure all the works were going to be completed on time.

On Thursday, he reported back to the cabinet, saying the country was ready on all fronts — “sports infrastructure, reception arrangements, transport and mobility”, he said.

Authorities are keen to turn the page on the embarrassment in September when torrential rain flooded the pitch at the 60,000-capacity Ebimpe Olympic Stadium, which had been specially constructed at enormous cost for the tournament.

It forced the interruption of a friendly match between Ivory Coast and Mali.

Volunteers, visitors

Some 20,000 young volunteers, 17,000 members of the security forces and 2,500 stewards have been mobilised for the tournament. The final will take place on February 11.

Up to 1.5 million visitors are expected to descend on Ivory Coast to cheer on their side, especially from neighbours Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Ghana who have all qualified.

But for market stallholders who usually sell figurines, masks and fabric, business in replicas of the Ivorian team’s shirts that sell for around 10 euros ($11) is brisk.

“There are people who are becoming traders just to sell the shirts!” stallholder Lamine Kone said.

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