Photograph: Luc Gnago/Reuters
Ivory Coast is about to stage its second Africa Cup of Nations but with the first happening 40 years ago, not many of the country’s more than 29 million people have experienced the tournament. Michel Brizoua-Bi, a lawyer and former senior figure in the Confederation of African Football (Caf), is among the exceptions.
Brizoua-Bi was 18 when, in March 1984, he and a 50,000 crowd, at the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan, witnessed the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, captained by Théophile Abega and inspired by Roger Milla, win the first of their five Afcon titles, beating Nigeria (known as the Green Eagles at the time) 3-1 in the final.
His father, Jean, as president of Fif, the Ivorian Football Federation, from 1980-88, was a key part of its organisation.
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“Hosting Africa is a part of the DNA of Côte d’Ivoire … I was just finishing secondary school, about to go to university … There were just a few of the teams having players in Europe,” Brizoua-Bi says. “Teams were mostly formed from players that played the game within Africa … It was a real African event in 1984. It is a global event now.”
The Afcon had a much smaller footprint in 1984 – an eight-team format, with two centres in Abidjan and Bouaké, as opposed to the current 24-team, six-centre, month-long tournament, costing the Ivorian exchequer more than $1bn (£780m), which begins at 8pm GMT on Saturday, with the host country taking on Guinea-Bissau.
Preparations for the tournament have not been without controversy. Alassane Ouattara, the country’s president, sacked the prime minister Patrick Achi in October, after the pitch and infrastructure at the showpiece stadium in Ebimpé, which hosts the opening and final matches, failed to meet tournament standards. It required remedial work, despite the $257m spent on its construction.
Brizoua-Bi says: “We have a massive event to stage and the entire country is going to feel the competition … We can feel the tension, the pressure and also the joy to be seen, globally.
“Success, concerning the Afcon, is at various levels. The first level is to show, after the very impressive performance of Morocco at the last World Cup, that Africa is a real player in the global competition of football. For Côte d’Ivoire? If it [the trophy] is not won by us, this should be the starting phase for developing a great team for the future.”
The drumbeat at the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny airport, welcoming arriving players, fans and officials, played by a talented cultural ensemble, sets the colourful ambience for the start of Africa’s top football event.
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Nigeria’s Jay-Jay Okocha, the outrageously talented midfielder who won the Afcon in 1994, and reached the final in 2000, is one of Caf’s four new ambassadors, with a role to promote “Caf and African football, as well as playing an important role in other activities including tournaments, charity initiatives, commercial and social events”.
Okocha is looking forward to what he thinks will be one of the most open tournaments in recent history. “What kicks in is the excitement, the opportunity to represent your nation and, of course, to try and win it,” he says of participating as a player. “It was always a proud moment for me, when I stepped out to play for Nigeria. Playing at five Africa Cup of Nations shows how committed I was then.”
Okocha remains a popular figure throughout the continent and has been mobbed by admirers in Abidjan since his arrival on Wednesday. “Even though I retired from football 16 years ago, the reception I receive from people shows that if you do something from your heart, play your heart out, people recognise that and respect you for that.”
With four of Ivory Coast’s neighbours – Guinea, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso – playing at the tournament, with visa-free entry for their fans, the Afcon is expected to have a much larger international fan presence than the last tournament in Cameroon, presenting a critical organisational test for a Caf led by the South African Patrice Motsepe.
Motsepe’s debut tournament as Caf president, in Cameroon in 2022, managed under the prevailing Covid restrictions, was bloodstained. Eight people died and more than 30 were injured because of unacceptably poor crowd-control measures at Yaoundé’s Olembé Stadium, at a match between the hosts and Comoros. It was the first time in the history of the Afcon, which started in 1957, that such a fatal tragedy occurred.
“The experience was very traumatic and lives with me till this date,” says Giovanni Bambe Wanneh, a Cameroonian journalist who was an eye witness at the disaster. “As I made my way to the southern entrance, I saw bloodstains scattered on the surface … Medics were running helter-skelter …
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“To have seen kids, men and women pass away in such a tragic way because of the sport, when it was clearly avoidable, is unfortunate. What was supposed to be a successful event recorded an everlasting stain.”
Motsepe, who took over as Caf president in March 2021, was severely criticised for the disaster under his watch. “I have a fundamental duty, as the president of Caf, to make sure that the circumstances, the infrastructure, the facilities [for an Afcon], are in line with safety [standards] worldwide,” Motsepe said in Yaoundé, in the aftermath of the tragedy.
It is a responsibility to which the game’s fraternity will firmly hold the billionaire over the next four weeks.