Sports / Football

Ivory Coast gets ready to host Africa’s biggest sporting event

CNN  — 

Africa’s biggest sporting event, the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), kicks off on January 13 in Ivory Coast for the first time in 40 years. The opening game will be played at one of the country’s newly built stadiums, the Alassane Ouattara, in the southern port city of Abidjan. But fresh pitches represent just the beginning of the West African country’s transformation ahead of the month-long tournament, which will see 24 nations battle it out in 52 matches played across five cities.

Four new stadiums have been built from scratch and two others renovated; roads that connect the cities have been developed, hospitals built or upgraded and airports refurbished. According to Idriss Diallo, president of the Ivorian Football Federation, the country has invested more than $1 billion in infrastructure related to the competition.

Organizers hope that the developments will leave a lasting legacy and mark a new beginning for the country, which has suffered from civil wars in the last two decades. Ivory Coast already has a soccer pedigree, having won the cup twice before and produced stars like former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and ex-Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure. But Diallo hopes that the new infrastructure will cement the nation’s global reputation as a soccer powerhouse.

“The basis of soccer is infrastructure,” he tells CNN. “The countries that have succeeded in soccer are the ones that started by setting up basic infrastructure: training pitches, competition pitches, local pitches … It’s an important first step. It’s going to give a boost to Ivorian soccer.”

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Ivory Coast has hosted AFCON once before, in 1984, but back then only eight nations participated and the host country was eliminated in the group stages. For the 2024 tournament, which was originally scheduled for June 2023 but postponed due to concerns over holding the competition during the country’s rainy season, Ivory Coast is one of the favorites.

Even if it doesn’t come away with the cup, hosting the event could be a marketing win, says Edem Spio, co-founder and host of the popular Africa Business of Sport podcast. “Countries, especially those in the global north, love to use sports as a vehicle to show their soft power and also the ability to be big in the industry. We saw how Qatar really went above and beyond in hosting the 2022 World Cup,” he says.

“An event like the AFCON, which is the flagship football event here in Africa, really positions any country which is able to host it as a country that understands the importance of having sports there and also wants to be a big name within sports.”

Long-term legacy

The impact of holding the event will also be felt across other industries. According to Diallo, the country is expecting up to 2 million people during the tournament, from neighboring countries that have qualified such as Burkina Faso and Ghana, as well as those slightly further afield like Nigeria and Senegal. He believes this will trigger a range of economic activity, from transport and small business opportunities to a major boost for the country’s hospitality industry.

A general view of Stade de la Paix in Bouake on December 7, 2023, during a visit to the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) infrastructure by journalists from the international press. After concerns about its level of preparation, Ivory Coast has stepped up the pace for the African Cup of Nations (CAN), which is set to start on January 13, 2024. Having become a leading international competition with 24 qualified teams, the CAN could attract up to 1.5 million visitors, according to the organizers. (Photo by Sia KAMBOU / AFP) (Photo by SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images)

Lolo Diby, president of the National Federation of the Hotel Industry in Ivory Coast, says that hotel occupancy currently hovers around 40% but during the tournament he expects this to rise to 100%. “This difference could represent the equivalent of at least 15 billion CFA francs per week ($25 million) … It’s huge potential,” he says.

The hope is that visitors will come back for more. Airport renovations, including adding lighting to the runways that enable night landings, will make travel to the country easier and the state has also invested in hospitals, equipping them with state-of-the-art scanners, according to Diallo.

“​​The investments that have been made by the government are investments that will leave a legacy in this country … in terms of infrastructure, in terms of technical skills, in terms of training and in terms of revenue in the soccer ecosystem. And that’s going to benefit the whole nation,” he says.

Thomas-Diego Badia, Erwan Schiex-Engama and Tom Bouchier Hayes contributed to this report.