Ivory-Coast players photoIvory-Coast players

Ivory Coast prioritizes wins over costs as AFCON 2023 begins

Abidjan, Ivory Coast – The city is buzzing with excitement as it prepares to welcome the best African footballers. You can see the national colours of orange, white and green everywhere: on flags, cocktails, jerseys and decorations. Women are dancing in the market wearing the shirts of Les Elephants, the men’s national team. Big screens are set up in the open-air maquis, the popular bars, all over the country.

The 34th edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is about to start, and Ivory Coast is the proud host. The commercial capital Abidjan, the economic hub of French-speaking Africa, is the centre of attention.

The tournament is not only a celebration of football, but also of national pride and unity for this West African nation. Football has often been a force for peace in this country, thanks to the influence of Didier Drogba, the legendary striker and one of the most famous Africans in the world.

Drogba has used his fame and talent to appeal for harmony in his homeland several times. In 2005, after Les Elephants qualified for their first World Cup, he and his teammates knelt down and begged the warring parties in the civil war to stop fighting. Their plea was heard and the violence stopped within a week.

In 2020, Drogba again spoke out for peace after nearly 100 people died in clashes following President Alassane Ouattara’s disputed third term in office, which sparked the second civil war in 2010.

Brice Kouame, a customer at Blockosso, a group of maquis by the lagoon in north Abidjan, is looking forward to the opening match on Saturday. He is drinking a Beaufort, a local beer, and says: “We are happy to host Africa today.” He missed the 2017 Francophone Games, the last major sporting event in the city, and he doesn’t want to miss this one.

Building and dispute

Abidjan, Ivory Coast – President Ouattara spoke of the healing power of hosting the Nations Cup for the second time – the first was in 1984 – in his New Year’s speech: “We must show our ability to unite, to make our country shine.”

His government has been working hard to prepare for the tournament.

A new $260m, 60,000 seat stadium on the edge of Abidjan named after Ouattara is one of several stadiums that have been built or renovated in four other cities: Yamoussoukro, the capital, Korhogo in the north, Bouake in the centre and San Pedro on the coast near Liberia.

Two new bridges over the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan have been opened in the last seven months, to ease traffic in the city. Roads and hotels have also been improved.

The tournament is expected to attract tourists to the Ivory Coast, especially from the 11 ECOWAS countries that are among the 24 teams. Fans are using their free movement within the region to come to the country and cheer for their teams.

But some people have criticised the Ouattara government’s spending of $1bn to host Africa’s biggest sporting event, when almost half of its 25 million people live on $1.2 or less a day.

There has also been some trouble.

Last September, the new Abidjan stadium, the main venue, was flooded after heavy rain. It led to the sacking of Patrick Achi and Paulin Danho as prime minister and sport minister, and an unknown cost to fix the pitch.

The stadium was built with a $180m “gift” from China to mark 35 years of friendship between the two countries. It is the latest example of China’s controversial “palace diplomacy” projects across Africa.

Reality or illusion?

Yacine Idriss Diallo, the head of the Ivory Coast Football Federation, believes that the investment is worthwhile.

He says, “This is not just for football, but for the whole country. The people of the country will use the roads, the hospitals, and the sports teams will use the stadiums.” Diallo is excited about the project.

The new stadium in San Pedro, which has 20,000 seats and is named after the famous Ivorian player Laurent Pokou, was completed soon after the road that connects it to Abidjan was repaired. This reduced the travel time between the two places from eight hours to four hours. As a result, the two top teams from San Pedro, Sewe Sport and San Pedro FC, do not have to go to Abidjan anymore to play their home games, since they now have a suitable venue in their own city.

Diallo, who used to be the vice president of ASEC Mimosas, the team that won the Ivorian league 29 times, also hopes that the new facilities – which include four new training fields in the host cities – will help the country produce more talented players.

He says, “The academies are very important, and that is where you can create good teams. We are trying to improve this throughout the country because we have many players from places outside Abidjan…our football [teams] will have nice infrastructure to play and Ivory Coast will be a center for football in West Africa. Many countries will come to play on our fields now.”

Diallo points out the success of Wilfried Singo and Simon Adingra, who came from remote areas and became stars in France and England respectively.

Singo, who is 23 years old, came from AS Denguele, a team based in Odienne, which is about 700km north of Abidjan. Adingra, who is 22 years old and plays as a midfielder, impressed everyone in his first season with Brighton, an English team, after moving from a Danish team called Nordsjaelland. He is from Bondouko.

Diallo says, “We need to go into the country to give opportunities to those young people to play and develop into top players.”

Paul Melly, who works as a consultant for the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a think-tank based in London, agrees with Diallo that hosting the tournament could have long-term benefits.

He says, “The $1bn investment is huge and people might complain that the money could be used for better things, like basic public services. But if you look at the big picture, it could be a smart investment: the tournament will have an economic impact on the whole country, because there are stadiums in five different cities. Also, the Nations Cup will show the world that [the Ivory Coast] has potential as a growing market and a place for business.”

The IMF predicts that the Ivorian economy, which is the 10th largest in Africa, will grow by 6.6 percent in 2024. This would make it one of the top 10 economies in the world in terms of growth. However, some people are worried that this will not benefit the people who are most affected by the high cost of living in the country.

Bright Simon, who leads the research at IMANI, a pan-African think-tank based in Accra, talks about the experiences of other countries that hosted tournaments and did not see much growth afterwards.

He tells Al Jazeera, “Research shows that South Africa’s World Cup in 2010 increased [gross domestic product] by about 0.5 percent, but the economy did not do well after that. Ghana’s new stadiums for the 2008 Nations Cup got worse quickly and they still have not found a way to make money from them.”

He adds, “Of course, things like roads, hotels and hospitals might do better, but only if they are well designed and located. In some cases, like Cameroon’s Nations Cup in 2022, there is no connection to wider economic areas, so the development results are not very good.”

We will endeavor to give our utmost effort.

Ivorian authorities are eager to realize Ouattara’s vision from 2014, despite the ongoing debate over the costs.

Diallo tells Al Jazeera that his country has made a lot of progress. “It was hard here ten years ago [due to the civil war], but now the country is calm, peaceful and everyone is striving to better their lives. The tournament is crucial for nation-building. You will witness the enthusiasm for the sport in this country during the Africa Cup of Nations.”

Hosting the Nations Cup could enhance the positive mood among Ivorians, especially if the Elephants, led by Serge Aurier and among the favourites, perform well.

But even Diallo is cautious about the prospects of the Elephants winning the most prestigious trophy in African football for the third time, following their victories in 1992 and 2015.

He says, “It would be great for the tournament if our team does well … but we have a new team. The team is very young, with 30 percent of them. This is their first big competition, so we will do our best to reach as far as we can and try to win the trophy.”

Credit: Al Jazeera

By dworldgist.com

Peter Ritdung Wakkias is a Nigerian blogger and programmer, known for being the CEO of www.dworldgist.com and www.gospelrespec.com. He holds a Higher National Diploma in Computer Science from Isa Mustapha Agwai 1 Polytechnic Lafia. Based in Lafia, Nasarawa State.

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