Ivory hosts

Ivory Coast was my third AFCON. Logistically, it was the most difficult. Not a single hotel outside commercial hub Abidjan was listed on booking sites. I used my dubious French, and used up my patience, to eventually secure reservations and found a driver, Monsieur Bamba, on a National Park website. I wasn’t sure whether he was going to turn up. He arrived at my Abidjan hotel at 5am and we were set for an Ivorian road adventure.

My schedule needed a car. It took in the end of the group phase, Second Round and Quarter Finals, and all six stadiums. I watched my first six matches over just 53 hours in three cities: humid Abidjan, second city Bouaké and the fascinating northern outpost of Korhogo. It would have been impossible on public transport. I did use the bus to reach Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast’s modern capital. It took an hour to fight through market traffic to get out of Abidjan’s sprawling bus station and a preacher with a microphone joined us for the last few hours.

The driver wasn’t a bargain, but the tickets were. Thirteen matches cost £88 and the electronic ticketing was near flawless. The spotless stadiums, each with their own individual flourishes, were blessed with booming PA systems that the preacher would have enjoyed. I was quite glad when the match started to give my ears a rest. At least until the Dance Cam, a half-time musical highlight, inspired Africans to move with rhythym and style.

There were very few Western tourists and it was easy to stand out, especially given my Dance Cam efforts. I was christened “White Congo” after donning a Leopards shirt for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s final group game. I met people from all except three of the 24 participating nations including Collin Benjamin, Namibia’s manager, in a beach restaurant after his team’s Second Round exit. The president of Tanzania’s Football Federation walked into my hotel restaurant complaining about the lack of English in Korhogo. I helped him order a fish.

AFCON is that sort of tournament. It’s friendly, local, yet has unrivalled continental importance. The welcome I received matched the brilliance of Akwaba, the tournament song I heard numerous times every day, but never bored of. Ivorians were reserved and honest. I flagged a taxi on a dark road somewhere near the Olympic Stadium in Ebimpé. I was ready to barter, but the driver charged the normal fare, around £13, for the twenty mile journey back to my Abidjan hotel.

Ivory Coast had waited forty years to host AFCON. They were hardly waiting to be the first hosts to lose two group matches since that 1984 tournament. Their 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea, my first match, was crushing. Fans threw a plastic chair at confused stewards who promptly threw the chair back at them. But, completely unexpectedly, the beat of the trip became Ivory Coast’s success.

Morocco became every Ivorian’s second favourite nation after they beat Zambia. Les Elephants’ qualification led to wild street celebrations as if they had won the tournament. I saw one fan in Korhogo use his Ivory Coast shirt as a prayer mat. It got even better. I watched Ivory Coast’s late victories over Senegal and Mali in maquis, streetside bars with large televisions and freshly grilled chicken, eaten with your hands and a cassava side dish called attiéké. My hand still hurt from all the celebratory high fives when I returned to London.

I watched the final in Sikatio, an Ivorian restaurant near my South London home. The Ivorians there were never in any doubt. It was destiny. The restaurant morphed into a packed dancefloor as Ivory Coast lifted their third title. “Allez les Elephants!” I shouted as I left, a fitting end to a terrific tournament.

13 matches – 6 stadiums – 13 days – 18 teams

Group phase
1 – Ivory Coast 0-4 Equatorial Guinea – Ebimpé – Match rating: 8/10 – Attendance: 45,000
2 – Ghana 2-2 Mozambique – Ebimpé – 6/10 – Attendance: 12,000
3 – Cameroon 3-2 Gambia – Bouaké – 8/10 – Attendance: 24,000
4 – Algeria 0-1 Mauritania – Bouaké – 9/10 – Attendance: 10,000
5 – Tunisia 0-0 South Africa – Korhogo – 1/10 – Attendance: 7,000
6 – DR Congo 0-0 Tanzania – Korhogo – 3/10 – Attendance: 10,000

Second Round
7 – Angola 3-0 Namibia – Bouaké – 6/10 – Attendance: 29,000
8 – Equatorial Guinea 0-1 Guinea – Ebimpé – 4/10 – Attendance: 36,000
9 – Cape Verde Islands 1-0 Mauritania – Abidjan – 4/10 – Attendance: 16,000
10 – Morocco 0-2 South Africa – San Pedro – 6/10 – Attendance: 19,000

Quarter Finals
11 – Nigeria 1-0 Angola – Abidjan – 6/10 – Attendance: 29,000
12 – Guinea 1-3 DR Congo – Ebimpé – 6/10 – Attendance: 33,000
13 – Cape Verde Islands 0-0 South Africa AET (South Africa win 1-2 on penalties) – Yamoussoukro – 4/10 – Attendance: 12,000

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