Security forces officers stand guard in front of the Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium of Ebimpe during a visit by African Nations Cup officials on July 11, 2023. Credit: Reuters


Street merchants draped in samples of the orange-white-and-green Ivorian flags stacked for sale on their shoulders. Women decked in the jersey of Les Elephants, cocktails being named after famous African footballers. Women decked in the jersey of Les Elephants, the senior men’s football team, dancing in the market. Wire designs of soccer balls hung as overhead street decor alongside signs flanking the road from the airport into the Abidjan city centre. Big screens going up at large open-air beer parlors or maquis, across the length and breadth of the nation.


As the 34th edition of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) gets underway, host country Ivory Coast is agog with anticipation. Nowhere is this more evident than in its commercial capital Abidjan, the economic powerhouse of Francophone Africa.

While the goals the 24 participating countries score during the footballing spectacle will likely elicit the loudest cheers, the tournament is also a source of patriotic joy for millions in this West African nation, where football has often been a tool for unity.

On several occasions, legendary striker Didier Drogba has used his stature as one of football’s greats and one of the most popular Africans alive, to call for lasting peace in his home country.

In October 2005, immediately after Les Elephants qualified for their first-ever appearance at the World Cup, Drogba, surrounded by his kneeling teammates, pleaded with warring factions in the ongoing civil war, to lay down their arms. That wish was granted within a week.

Just over two years ago, the former Chelsea striker again called for peace in his country following unrest that caused the deaths of nearly 100 people after President Alassane Ouattara  – whose 2010 win triggered the second civil war – secured a controversial third term in office in November 2020.

President Ouattara alluded to the potential reconciliatory role of hosting the Nations Cup for a second time – the other time was in 1984 – when he told the nation during his New Year’s address: “We must show our ability to unite, to make our country shine.”

From the mood around the country, everyone can’t wait to host the whole of Africa again.

Ouattara’s government has been busy ahead of the tournament. In addition to a new shiny $260m, 60,000 capacity stadium on the outskirts of Abidjan named after Ouattara, several stadiums have been built or upgraded across four other cities: the capital Yamoussoukro, Korhogo to the north, the central hub of Bouake and dreamy coastal San Pedro near the Liberian border.

A worker spreads fertiliser on the lawn of the Bouake stadium, ahead of the 34th edition of the African Cup of Nations [AFCON] scheduled to take place from January 13 to February 11, 2024, in Bouake, Ivory Coast. Credit: BBC Sport

Two new bridges crossing the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan have been commissioned in the last seven months, to manage traffic in the city. Roads and hotels have also been upgraded.

The month-long event is expected to boost tourism in the Ivory Coast, especially from within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which is home to 11 of the 24 participating teams. Fans are taking advantage of freedom of movement within the bloc to pour into the country to support their teams.

But the world’s largest cocoa producer spending an eye-popping $1bn to host Africa’s biggest sporting event when almost half of its 25 million people live on $1.2 or less a day, has led to criticism for the Ouattara administration’s priorities.

And there has been more controversy.

Last September, the new Abidjan stadium, the main venue, was flooded after a downpour. It cost Patrick Achi and Paulin Danho their jobs as prime minister and sport minister respectively, and an unnamed amount to relay the pitch.

The initial construction of the stadium was financed by a $180m “gift” from the Chinese government as a gesture to celebrate 35 years of friendship between the two countries. It is the latest example of Beijing’s controversial “palace diplomacy” projects across Africa.

The president of the Ivory Coast Football Federation thinks the investment is for a worthy cause.

“This investment is not only for football but for the entire country. The roads will be used by the people of the country, the hospitals too and the stadiums will be used by sports teams,” enthused Diallo to newsmen just weeks before the tournament opener.

The new 20,000-seat stadium in San Pedro, named after legendary Ivorian striker Laurent Pokou, was finished not long after the road linking it to Abidjan was fixed, halving the arduous eight-hour road journey between both places. Consequently, San Pedro’s two top division teams Sewe Sport and San Pedro FC no longer have to go to Abidjan where they were forced to play their home games due to the absence of an adequate venue in their hometown.

Diallo, a former vice president of 29-time Ivorian league winners ASEC Mimosas, is also hopeful that the modern facilities – including four new training pitches in the host cities – will accelerate the development of the country’s next generation of talent.

“The academies are very important, and it is from there you can build good teams,” he says. “We are trying to improve this across the country because we have lots of players from areas outside Abidjan…our football [teams] will have nice infrastructure to play and Ivory Coast will become a hub for football in West Africa. Many countries will now come to play on our fields.”

A general view of the main entrance of the upgraded Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium ahead of the 34th edition of the African Cup of Nations [AFCON], scheduled to take place from January 13 to February 11, 2024, in Abidjan. Credit: Reuters

Diallo highlights the emergence of Wilfried Singo and Simon Adingra from remote areas to star respectively with top French side Monaco and impressive Brighton who have lit up the English Premier League.

Paul Melly, a consulting fellow with the Africa Programme at London-based think-tank Chatham House, believes the massive expenditure to host the tournament could be beneficial in the long term.

“The $1bn capital outlay is hefty and open to complaints the money could be better spent on basic public services,” he says. “But taking the long view, it could prove a shrewd investment: with host stadiums in five different cities the economic impact of the tournament will be spread around the country. Moreover, the Nations Cup will showcase [the Ivory Coast’s] potential as an emerging market and business services hub.”

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast that the Ivorian economy, currently Africa’s 10th largest, will grow by a healthy 6.6 percent in 2024. This would place it among the top 10 best-performing economies in the world. Still, there are concerns about whether that can trickle down to the households most vulnerable to the soaring costs of living, nationwide.

Bright Simon, Research Lead at IMANI, an Accra-based pan-African think tank, highlights the experiences of previous tournament hosts who envisioned post-cup growth that barely came.

Former Chelsea striker and Ivorian soccer legend Didier Drogba has called on his countrymen to welcome the rest of Africa with open arms. Credit: Bein Sports


“Research shows that South Africa’s World Cup effort added about 0.5 percent to [gross domestic product] in 2010 but the aftermath has been economically disappointing”. “Ghana saw the new stadia built for the 2008 Nations Cup deteriorate rapidly and has still not found a means for them to pay for themselves.”

While the cost-analysis debate continues, Ivorian authorities are excited about bringing to life an idea that Ouattara has had since 2014. The country has come very far. Ten years ago it was tough here [because of the civil war], but now you see the country is quiet, there is peace and everybody is working hard to improve their lives. Hosting the tournament is very important for nation-building. During the Africa Cup of Nations, you will see the passion for the game in this country.”

The current feel-good factor among Ivorians about hosting the Nations Cup could be boosted by an above-average performance by the Serge Aurier-led Elephants, one of the favorites to win the competition.

However, while many Ivorians are hoping their team repeats the success of their predecessors of 1992 and 2015, analysts are saying the citizens shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the Elephants’ chances of lifting African football’s most coveted prize for a third time.


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