'Allez les Elephants.' Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

February 9, 2024   6 mins

At the apex of the flyover somewhere to the north of Abidjan, crowds lined the roads, dancing, singing, blowing whistles and vuvuzelas. A shirtless man painted in the orange, white and green of the Ivorian flag tottered into the middle of the carriageway, gyrating slowly in a euphoric trance as vehicles swerved around him. On the road below, a river of frothing orange and white stretched into the distance. Everybody was waiting for a glimpse of their squad and every bus — carrying journalists, volunteers, fans — was cheered, just in case. The team had left the stadium at least an hour earlier and must have taken a different route, but it didn’t seem to matter.

When I eventually made it back to my guest house, three lads staggered up to me. “Were you there? Were you in the stadium?” one asked, significantly the worse for drink. When I confirmed I was and followed up with a cry of “Allez les Elephants”, he hugged me and hung on desperately as I attempted to disengage, wishing him repeated bonnes nuits. Ivory Coast had beaten DR Congo in the semi-final of the Cup of Nations.

When governments invest in major football events, it’s scenes like this they’re hoping for: explosions of glee that celebrate the nation and by extension the president — in this case, Alassane Ouattara. After the two civil wars that devastated the country before his accession, the tournament has a clear role in promoting the ideal of reconciliation and progress. “We must,” Ouattara said in his new year address, “show our ability to unite, to make our country shine.” Lest there be any doubt about the intent to bolster his image, the biggest stadium in Abidjan, the scene of their semi-final triumph and of Sunday’s final against Nigeria, is the Stade Alassane Ouattara.

Any such burnishing seemed extremely unlikely when Ivory Coast capitulated in the second half of their final group game, losing 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea — a performance that led to street violence and damage to shops and cars. They were facing not merely elimination but perhaps the greatest humiliation a tournament host had ever suffered. But then Ghana conceded twice in injury-time against Mozambique and, combined with Zambia’s failure to take more than a point from games against Tanzania and Morocco, Ivory Coast snuck through as one of the four best third-place sides. Locals started calling them “les revenants” — back from the dead.

Reluctant to risk further embarrassment, the team’s coach, the 70-year-old Frenchman Jean-Louis Gasset, was swiftly fired “for insufficient results”. He had been assistant coach for both the French national team and Paris Saint-Germain and had a moderate managerial record in Ligue Un, but he had no experience of African football and rarely seemed comfortable. To replace him, they approached Hervé Renard, the Frenchman who led Ivory Coast to the title in 2015. Under contract as coach of the France national women’s team, he expressed interest in a short-term deal, effectively a loan, but France said non.

And so, for a last-16 tie against the defending champions Senegal, Ivory Coast were led by the former Reading midfielder Emerse Faé, who had never been a head coach in his life. After all the lavish investment, the whole saga seemed a little careless. Yet somehow it worked. Ivory Coast went behind early on, but levelled with an 86th-minute penalty, then won in a shoot-out. Down to 10 men against Mali in the quarter-final, Ivory Coast scored in the last minute then won it in the last minute of extra time. The miracles kept on coming. As Senegal’s coach Aliou Cissé put it, describing how Ivory Coast had returned from the brink, “the dead kid does not fear the knife”. (He was, to be clear, talking of young goats, not children.)

But their halting progression has had an unexpected advantage. If they had won their group, they would have kept playing at the Ouattara. But their circuitous route to the final has taken them to Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital, and Bouaké, a place freighted with national significance: in the first Ivorian civil war, which lasted from 2002 to 2007, Bouaké was the capital of the rebel north.

The conflict was the ultimate consequence of the instability that followed the death, in 1993, of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had led the country since its independence in 1960. Ouattara had been prime minister under Houphouët-Boigny but, in line with the constitution, it was the president of the national assembly, Henri Konan Bédié, who succeeded him.

Bédié ruled along ethnic lines: he pursued the nationalistic and divisive “Ivoirité”, a citizenship policy which favoured those of Akan descent at the expense of the Dioulas, such as Ouattara, and migrant groups. In practice, this set the Christian south against the Muslim north. Bédié was overthrown by the military in 1999 and Laurent Gbagbo became president after elections the following year. Gbagbo, a Roman Catholic, was Bété but conformed to the demands of Ivoirité that disbarred Ouattara. The war, in which an alliance of Ouattara supporters and disaffected military fought the government, began in 2002 and dragged on to 2007, claiming around 1,300 lives and forcing 750,000 to abandon their homes.

Football played a key role in reconciliation. In 2007, the Ivorian former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba was named African Footballer of the Year. Like Gbagbo, he is Bété, and when he was received by the president at his palace to show him the award, he suggested he should go to Bouaké to present it there as well. Gbagbo agreed and Drogba, riding in an open-topped car escorted by soldiers, travelled to the rebel stronghold to meet the leader of the opposition forces, Guillaume Soro.

His memory of his trip to Bouaké in 2007 is of “thousands of men and women lining the streets… many in tears”, and he realised his award had taken on “a big symbolic value — one of pride in our country and hope for the future”. Two months later, he persuaded both the Ivorian football federation and his team-mates that they should play an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Bouaké.

With soldiers from both sides watching on, Drogba scored the final goal in a 5-0 win over Madagascar, but far more significant was that “it showed… we were still one country, united behind one team”. It also persuaded many who had fled that it was safe to return. Drogba remains astonishingly popular, appearing regularly at games, every benign wave generating rapturous cheers. Almost every Ivorian seems to support Chelsea because of him. And since that first game in 2007, the Ivory Coast national team have been semi-regular visitors to Bouaké for both Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.

A second civil war broke out following the 2010 general election, with Gbagbo refusing to accept Ouattara’s victory and expelling UN peacekeepers. Although much briefer than the first, this conflict was bloodier, resulting in around 3,000 deaths before Ouattara’s forces seized Yamoussoukro, San Pedro and then, critically, in April 2011, Abidjan. Gbagbo was arrested, tried by the International Criminal Court and, in 2019, acquitted on four charges of crimes against humanity. He returned to Ivory Coast having been granted a diplomatic passport by Ouattara in 2021, although it remains unclear whether he will be permitted to stand in next year’s general election.

The tournament and the expenditure on it are a clear part of his re-election strategy. The economy is in good health, as evidenced by the decision last month to sell the first US-dollar bond by a sub-Saharan state in almost two years. GDP is up $27 billion on the past decade to $70 billion and, with growth running at over 6% per year, Ivory Coast should soon be the second biggest economy in the region behind Nigeria thanks to exports of cocoa, coffee and oil.

Nevertheless, the sums spent on the tournament are vast in a country in which half of the population lives on less than $8.50 a week. Exactly how much has been spent is impossible to glean because it’s not entirely clear what constitutes tournament expenditure: the road from Abidjan to the port city of San Pedro, which staged seven games, for instance, has been significantly upgraded, halving journey times, which should have long-term benefits, as should the two bridges built over the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan. Last year, the IMF granted Ivory Coast a $3.5 billion loan to help with post-war rebuilding, while there has also been a “gift” of $180m from China. The official line is that $1 billion has been spent on the tournament, although most seem to think the true figure is higher.

The stadiums, though, are the most obvious representation of the expense — which is why it was such an embarrassment when the refurbished Stade Alassane Ouattara was flooded by a sudden downpour during a friendly against Mali last September. The dangerous pitch meant the game had to be abandoned, while water seeped into the VIP box. Outtara’s response was to authorise a further $33 million to improve drainage, and sack both the minister of sport, Paulin-Claude Danho, and the prime minister, Patrick Achi.

“Our country has come a long way,” said the president of the Ivorian football federation, Yacine Idriss Diallo, last month. “Ten years ago, it was tough here, but now you see the country is calm. There is peace and everybody is working hard to improve their lives. Hosting the tournament is very important for nation-building.”

But only the final result matters. And Nigeria are a well-organised team, conceding only two goals in six games in the tournament; they have already beaten their hosts in the group stage. But there is a belief growing in Ivory Coast that, having implausibly survived again and again, les revenants are closing in on an astonishing triumph. And if that happens, the $1 billion-plus Outtara has spent will look like very good value.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.