Animal magic

It had been forty years and two civil wars since Ivory Coast had last hosted the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). It was instantly clear how much it meant to the country. Félix Houphouët-Boigny International Airport, snappily named after Ivory Coast’s post-independence president, was decorated in orange and green lights, with luminous footballs and a goal stretched against the side of the terminal building. Inside, cardboard cut outs of football players hung from the ceiling. Around cities, flags lined the roads, trees were painted in the national colours and the orange shirt of the home team was de rigueur street wear.

After enjoying Ghana 2008 and enduring Egypt 2019, I had long planned on Cameroon 2021 being my third AFCON. But the pandemic struck, and COVID-19 restrictions made visiting the rescheduled tournament in 2022 a logistical nightmare. Ivory Coast promised more stability, even if it was the sixth consecutive AFCON where either the host country, the timing or both had changed. (Morocco 2025 will be the seventh after they replaced original hosts Guinea).

As with Cameroon 2021, the 2023 AFCON was held early the following year. Plans for a summer tournament were dampened by it coinciding with Ivory Coast’s rainy season. I was certain that Ivorian downpours had been relatively consistent in their timing for several millennia. I had not risked anything. After my aborted trip to Morocco 2015, switched to Equatorial Guinea after an Ebola outbreak nowhere near North Africa, I knew not to organise my travels too early. But flights to Africa are often scant and expensive. I took a risk on the Air France sale before the AFCON schedule had been finalised. It paid off, with free plane Champagne and seats for a fraction of the cost.

Independent travel has, perhaps, become a little too easy. Flights are cheap, English widespread and online reviews help curate trips. But Africa, a few mainstream countries apart, remains quite untouched by such modernities. Ivory Coast would be more challenging, but getting into the country was quite easy. Many African countries have simplified previously complex visa processes. An e-visa for Ivory Coast cost a reasonable £62, only required proof of booked accommodation and was issued within days. The only dilemma was being asked to declare whether you were “married”, “divorced” or “celibate”.

The online ticketing system was largely straightforward. Refreshingly, there was no sign of the dreadful authentication system for Egypt 2019, where a verification code required within a minute appeared after the time had elapsed. This was also my first AFCON with e-ticketing, which worked well and reflected the growing tech culture of country where mobile ownership averages 1.6 phones per person. The ticket prices were also very affordable for a western football traveller, just £88 for thirteen matches including three quarter finals.

I travelled with Allan, a Peterborough United fan who needed constant feeding, and Stu, a Bromley fan who needed constant beer. As a trio, it was sensible to hire a driver given the tight schedule between our matches. It would have been romantic to take the Burkina Faso-bound train, affectionately known as the “Ouagadougou Choo-Choo”, from Abidjan to Bouaké’s modernist station. But the railway now only transported freight, buses were scattergun outside of Abidjan and I wasn’t convinced about the reliability of a red and blue pickup truck with “Frank Lampard” plastered on the side.

Unexpectedly, I found a reliable driver after researching chimpanzees. I had investigated visiting Taï National Park in the west of the country until I realised we did not have the time to combine tracking apes with footballing japes. Taï’s website listed Monsieur Bamba as an Abidjan-based driver so I sent him a message in French. A few hours later, I was walking to a Dulwich Hamlet match when I received a WhatsApp call from Ivory Coast. It was Monsieur Bamba. My French was not refined enough to answer the call so I let it run to voicemail and used modern technology, and French friend Anne-Cecile, to translate. He was very clear. “40,000 CFA francs (£52) per day. Anywhere.” He sent photos of his car, a decent Hyundai, but his messages became increasingly sporadic. I wasn’t sure if he was going to turn up. As it turned out, he arrived at our Abidjan hotel at 5am and we were set for an Ivorian road adventure.

Accommodation was also challenging to book. Not a single hotel outside commercial hub Abidjan was listed on booking sites. I used my dubious French, and used up my patience, to chase reservations over email and WhatsApp. One hotel, Mon Afrik in Bouaké, defrauded me of a small deposit. But this was unusual. The general vibe was of a country that was not used to much tourism outside of Abidjan. This led to some intriguing offers. A large hotel in capital Yamoussoukro left me a voice note offering me a bed for three people. I didn’t enjoy Stu and Allan’s company that much. I eventually had more success with the Mont Korhogo in the northern city of the same name. They replied to my enquiry saying that rooms had a fully stocked minibar, without any suggestion whether they were available. After finally securing a room, the official confirmation included “GABON” as a header for no apparent reason. Gabon had not even qualified, although it may have been a sly reference to Stu’s visit to the tournament co-hosted there in 2012.

Organising hotels may have been an exhausting and entertaining prelude, but Ivory Coast promised a rich cultural mix on arrival. Abidjan, the most populous city by far, is a buzzy mix of traffic and expats attracted by regionally high wages. Ivory Coast, the world’s largest exporter of cacao, has developed rapidly since civil warfare ended in 2011. Economic output per person is now the highest in West Africa, even higher than in regional powerhouses Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. Gerard, an English-speaking taxi driver from Douala in Cameroon, explained that the main difference between Ivory Coast and his home country was that Abidjan has roads.

Indeed, Ivorian infrastructure was impressive. The highway between Abidjan and Yamoussoukro is not called “the best road in West Africa” without reason. The smooth, empty asphalt was reminiscent of a European motorway during the pandemic. Only hazy skies, heavy with humidity, fringing forest and the occasional local dangling a takeaway cane rat on a stick reminded me I was in West Africa. And Monsieur Bamba was a safe driver, with music from Malian vocalist Salif Keita a soothing presence on the car stereo. I only worried about his ability to break when he placed a plastic bag full of crabs by his feet. The crabs were much cheaper in western Ivory Coast, where he purchased them by the roadside, than in Abidjan. His growing family, five children with five more planned, would dine well that evening.

A twenty-four-team tournament needs six stadiums and, pleasingly, this leads to some unconventional host cities. Ivory Coast’s rogue choices were northern outpost Korhogo and western port San Pedro. Korhogo was the most endearing of the hosts, with a market full of smiling traders, and not a tourist stall in sight. I enjoyed bartering for football shirts and bought an eagle-fronted Mali shirt from an Ivorian trader who was a different sort of Eagles fan. He supported Crystal Palace as the South London club were the long-time home of Ivory Coast forward Wilfred Zaha. Women selling fresh lettuce and chillis were curious of foreigners, posed for photos, and giggled as they looked at the results on my camera screen. “Take me to Paris” said one.

I bought peanuts from a trader, and several shekere, a percussion instrument made from gourd and beads that had livened up South Africa’s stultifying goalless draw with Tunisia, from another. Women walked around the market with goods piled high on their heads. And, in this crossroads town, not far from the borders with Burkina Faso and Mali, Muslim women in reserved dress brushed shoulders with Catholics in garish colours. Ivory Coast, with a population that is reportedly 42% Muslim and 38% Catholic, has two near equally represented main religions, rare in any country.

We employed a young guide, Osmane, for a day trip out of Korhogo. Osmane presented us with a tour receipt handwritten in block capitals. It was sealed with an official stamp that proved we were to visit two local villages, an animist sacrifice site and witness the famous Boloye, or panther, dance. The village of Fulabougou, where one hundred of the Fulani tribe lived their lives amidst arid nothingness, was no tourist trap. A cheery man poured us some tea, quite bitter to taste, and remarked that he liked my Ivory Coast training shirt.

Nearby Niofoin, famous for its fetish huts, had seen a few visitors. Children were attracted to Osmane like bees around a honeycomb and enjoyed a kickaround with Stu and a rustic ball. We paid a small admission fee and gave presents to the villagers. An interesting day finished with the spectacular highlight, the panther dance in Waraniené, where a dozen acrobats tumbled to a rhythmic beat that emanated from a similar number of musicians.

The benefits of our local tourism, and the tournament, trickled through to poor villagers and helped support this rich traditional culture. AFCON was apparently costing the country around £1 billion, and the organisers had cut few corners. There were large numbers of helpful volunteers and security in Korhogo, close to the militias of Mali and Burkina Faso, was noticeably tight. My pen failed to make it through the first line of checks, tossed to one side alongside other potential plastic missiles. And, although few had arrived early for South Africa against Tunisia, my photoshoot outside was interrupted by jumpy officials, clearly worried about potential crowd congestion.

The stadium experience was good. There was a refreshingly local feel to the food on sale, with chunky baguettes and poulet tchep, a spicy Senegalese rice dish popular in Ivory Coast. As always, there wasn’t enough water for Westerners who had trekked across baking asphalt to spend six hours in a sultry stadium. We took in large water bottles and hid the lids in our shoes to bypass inconsistent security personnel. “I’m pretty sure these guys don’t have a PhD in fluid dynamics” said Stu, using humour to replace beer. There were no alcoholic drinks on sale in the stadiums, which I saw as a positive given how excitable Africans are anyhow. And this lack of liquid reduced the pressure on the toilets. These would have been superior to many stadiums’ facilities were it not for Muslim men washing their feet in the sinks before prayer, and water spilling onto the floor.

The atmosphere was buzzing for most games, even those not involving Ivory Coast. Around 29,000 fans, mostly Ivorians attracted by ticket prices that started at 1,000 CFA (£1.30), witnessed the second round match between Angola and Namibia in Bouaké, a linear city of some half a million. I remarked that you would struggle to attract this crowd in similarly sized Sheffield for such a match if ticket prices were adjusted to local income. Admittedly, we saw a few tickets being given away in Korhogo, apparently purchased by the city’s mayor, and school children helped fill unsold seats in Abidjan. But this was probably the best attended AFCON, helped by a large diaspora from neighbouring countries. “There are five million Guineans in Abidjan” said one Guinea fan to us. This wasn’t true, but led to a cracking atmosphere at the two Guinea matches we watched.

There were not many travelling fans apart from a large number of Moroccans, buoyed by becoming the first ever African World Cup semi-finalists in Qatar 2022. We met some who had driven from Morocco, a logistical challenge greater than my hotel hunt. However, most of the choreographed fan groups picked out of by the television cameras were supported by their governments. I met an Equatorial Guinea fan with a photograph of Teodoro Mbasogo, president of the oil-rich Central African country, emblazoned on his suit jacket. There was no way he had paid for his own ticket. The Mozambique government had decided not to fund any fans, with not a single cheer resonating in the cavernous Olympic Stadium after their first goal of an unlikely 2-2 comeback against Ghana.

Mozambique’s late equalizer was cheered enthusiastically by the Ivorians who had stayed in the stadium after the hosts’ crushing 4-0 defeat against Equatorial Guinea. This proved to be a crucial goal. Ghana, on two points, could not finish above Ivory Coast, on three points, in the ranking for third placed teams. A terrible day for Ivorian football turned into a celebration, with throngs of people running down the dark roads banging cars, including ours, and partying outside a bar called Parc des Princes. These were people without much to embrace in normal life who would take any opportunity to celebrate.

The celebrations were even more fervent in Korhogo after a goalless draw between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Many in the crowd were listening to Morocco’s narrow victory over Zambia on their earpieces. A draw in Korhogo and that Morocco win meant that Ivory Coast qualified from the group phase, just, as the fourth best third placed team. I saw one relieved fan in Korhogo use his Ivory Coast shirt as a prayer mat. Cars, motorcycles and people crowded into the middle of the road in central Korhogo in one seething mass. It was as if Ivory Coast had won the tournament. Nearby, a smiling policeman firmly shook me by the hand on a street corner, whilst other jubilant men stopped at a late-night boulangerie to buy baguettes, a scene that encapsulated the lingering French ambience of Ivory Coast.

Ivory Coast’s qualification led to Morocco becoming every Ivorian’s second favourite team. Many locals wore Morocco shirts, some even bursting into tears after their surprise exit to South Africa in San Pedro. I spoke to American-Ivorian Dosso at a cool beach bar in Sassandra, a coastal gem an hour’s drive to the east of San Pedro. He confirmed that Ivorians supported Morocco because “we were almost of out of the game. Morocco woke us up.” Other Ivorians mentioned student exchange programmes between the two countries, whilst I suspected that there may be some nods of admiration towards a fellow former French colony’s impressive economic development.

Contemporary events certainly seemed to have the edge over traditional rivalries. I was surprised to see Nigeria so well favoured, apart from in the final against the hosts, and there was a noticeable preference for West African sides. I met Seib, a good-humoured clothes trader from Niger, at the Stade de la Paix in Bouaké. He explained that “we’re all the same people. Just paper is different”. He described Ivory Coast, where he had lived for five years, as “the best land in West Africa” before offering to sell me some shoes.

Ivorians showed a coolness towards Cameroon. I wore a Samuel Eto’o-era shirt that failed to impress locals, apparently still angry about Cameroon’s inability to stage the 2019 tournament, which pushed back Ivory Coast’s hosting duties. Surprisingly, my shirt also didn’t go down well with Cameroonians who noted it only had four AFCON winning stars above the crest, not the fifth earned in 2017. Ivorian dislike was only really reserved for northern neighbours Mali. The Eagles may have worn the best shirt but had not impressed Ivorians with their politics. The country had experienced a military coup d’etat in 2021 and, more recently, withdrawn from the Economic Community of West African States.

AFCON did not attract many international fans, but those that attended had interesting back stories. I met an Irishman, Paul, on a TripAdvisor forum, and he joined us for the San Pedro leg that included a perilous boat journey searching for hippos. After spending years working in Africa, Paul had finally realised his dream of watching the tournament in his retirement. “I feel at home with the Irish flag everywhere” he said, reflecting on the similarities between Ivory Coast’s and the Republic’s national colours. The informative Facebook group, West Africa Travellers, linked me with Jess, a Danish gambler, and Jennifer, a sports loving American. We messaged before and during AFCON. I enjoyed combining my football knowledge with Jess’ gambler’s instinct. And we made a small profit by betting low on corners in the baking afternoon matches.

Jennifer was staying at the Pullman Hotel in Plateau, the financial centre of Abidjan that pulsated during the day, but was ominously quiet after dark. She experienced the opening match, but spent most her time in the hotel. Understandably, a lone woman in West Africa felt rather overwhelmed. We visited on our first day and found that the Ghana and Nigeria squads were also based at the Pullman. We breezed past security until the final door. Victor Osimhen was being interviewed outside, but Jennifer’s presence was enough to let us in. We mixed with Nigeria’s coaching staff and watched Jordan Ayew trot out for training.

AFCON is that sort of tournament. It’s friendly, local, yet has unrivalled continental importance. We wandered around the faded colonial streets of Grand Bassam, the former capital, before Ivory Coast’s second round clash with Senegal. We looked rather like a stag do in our bright Ivory Coast shirts, but they provoked conversation. A man in an upscale restaurant asked if we were supporting les Elephants. I was surprised to hear perfect English and, after finding out he was Namibian, asked if he had also watched Angola 3-0 Namibia in Bouaké. He laughed before introducing himself as Collin Benjamin, the former Hamburg defender and current manager of Namibia. I also met former Reading striker Yakou Méïté’s younger brother in Bouaké, who stood out in a pristine Reading away shirt. And, in Korhogo, the president of Tanzania’s Football Federation, Wallace Karia, walked into our hotel restaurant complaining about the lack of English. I helped him order a fish.

The quality of AFCON football sometimes attracts derogatory comments. It is certainly no Champions League. I christened the shot unnecessarily blasted over the crossbar with more power than precision “an AFCON special.” Stu remarked “there’s more guile at Bromley” during Guinea’s dire match against Equatorial Guinea. But it was certainly fun to watch twelve former and current Fulham players. Alex Iwobi is probably the best known, certainly to me as I used to work and play football with his father. Jean-Michel Seri, a scuttling presence in the stellar Championship side of 2022, also turned into a pivotal player for the hosts. Meanwhile. few Fulham fans will recall Guinea-Bissau centre back Marcelo Djalo, although club legend and current coach Luis Boa Morte will be his manager when he switches SW6 for an AFCON qualification campaign this summer.

There is also a charm that world stars like Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mané and Victor Osimhen compete against players from the domestic leagues of Mozambique and Mauritania. The lesser teams caught up in this tournament, with stalwarts Ghana, Tunisia and Algeria surprisingly knocked out at the group phase. My favourite match was Mauritania’s 1-0 defeat over Algeria, a real clash of styles, and a remarkable triumph of power over the lightweight touch players of the 2019 champions. This was Mauritania’s first ever AFCON win. The Mauritania team celebrated in front of their fans, some imported from home, some new recruits from Bouaké and England, in a way that you rarely see in elite competitions. It was a privilege to witness one of the greatest days in Mauritania’s sporting history, something that helped put the country on the map.

We also watched Mauritania’s second round tie against the Cape Verde Islands, another over-achieving team, at the Félix Houphouët-Boigny stadium in downtown Plateau. Mauritania wore gold numbers on the back of their shirts but a less than flashy defensive mistake gave the islanders a place in the quarter finals. Nobody wanted extra time. Ivory Coast were playing holders Senegal in the late kick off. We dashed off in a taxi to Marcory, a workaday suburb on an island to the south of Plateau, to find a suitable place to watch the match on television.

The taxi driver asked me to put my seat belt on. I was shocked. It was the first time this has happened to me in Africa, where such an action is normally seen as an affront to driving skill, or the ability of God to intervene. It didn’t help. He pulled over on a dark side street in Marcory and ran over some high-heeled shoes for sale on a plastic sheet in the road. The ensuing argument was remarkably polite, our driver quelling the vendor’s ire by repeating “pardonne” several times. This exchange was symptomatic of the country, relaxed and adaptable, even when faced with challenge.

We headed to a maquis, a streetside bar with plastic furniture, large televisions, and freshly grilled chicken, eaten with your hands and a cassava side dish called attiéké. Maquis are the democratic heart of Ivory Coast and watching matches there was as much an experience, and probably a more local one, than watching matches live. The facilities were certainly more rustic than at the gleaming stadiums and normally involved pissing in the dark in the vague direction of a toilet. And, as no Google reviews exist, our maquis selections were based on observation alone, a refreshing throwback to travelling days of yore.

This Marcory maquis was packed, even half an hour before kick-off. A barmaid in a grey dress did her best to find us seats and kept us well stocked in Bock beers. Around one hundred locals watched the game from plastic chairs, and the standing crowd behind swelled to a similar size. Truck drivers slowed to watch through their windows. An early setback, a Senegal goal, was taken well by the crowd, but Ivory Coast grew into the match, and glass bottles flew off tables and smashed in all directions when Franck Kessié equalised with a late penalty.

The match went to penalties. It became clear many were listening on earpieces, cheering every home success some ten seconds before the screen action. A large man at the front tried to persuade the listeners not to give away the penalty results. I was also slightly irritated but Stu, often the voice of reason, said that we would rather be part of this experience than in a sterile hotel room. The listeners certainly helped when the big screen transmission cut as one penalty was about to be taken. And Ivorians also needed to see the penalty on television to believe it even after listening to the conversion. Double the celebrations.

Ivorians cheered loudly as Kessié was about to strike the winning spot kick and returned to celebrate in front of the screen. People danced on the street and gave three white men strong hugs and high fives that hurt the following morning. Motorcyclists sped off on the wrong side of the road with national flags billowing behind. Fireworks lit up the sky above the low apartment buildings. I had to remind myself that this was only the second round, albeit a victory against the heavily fancied Senegalese.

We paid up and gave the barmaid around £3 for her help. She beamed back with an unforgettable smile. Customers don’t tend to leave tips in a country where money is tight. We moved around the corner to another bar to soak up the atmosphere. On the way, a group of older women danced and chanted “Cote d’Ivoire, Cote d’Ivoire”. There were loud cheers as Emerse Faé, in his first ever match as a manager after previous coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked, appeared on television. And an amazing night ended with a conversation with a man called Touré who claimed he used to play football with former Arsenal winger Gervinho.

This tale reminded me of the Serbian speedboat driver I met in Montenegro, after my final Europe United match, who said he had previously played top level Turkish football. And, much like my European tour, the AFCON experience in Ivory Coast was much more than watching live matches. It was about the people, the places, travelling between them with Monsieur Bamba, and how football can bring magic into ordinary folks’ lives. Especially when a host country scrapes through the group phase and wins the entire tournament with a rookie coach. Allez les Elephants!

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