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Dispatches From Africa: AFCON 2023

By Benjamin Ziemer, NorCal Premier Soccer President and Co-Founder

If the game of football is our passport to the world, the ball is our translator.

Our final morning in Côte d’Ivoire. 7:30 a.m. departure from hotel to visit the club of our friend Keita in one of the poorest districts of Abidjan.

A NorCal football buddy, Antonio Reis, previously from Stanislaus Soccer club, via Angola, replied to the photo I sent him from the Angola game we had attended three hours north of  Abidjan two days before with, “Enjoy the continent. Great people, complicated living. Thank you for remembering my country.”

Yesterday was incredible. An hour trip outside of Abidjan, we watched two U18 games between four Academies. While we were “baking” sheltered underneath corrugated metal roof in airplane seats, the owner of the host club is a wealthy construction man possessing mad interest in airplanes–including landing strip and dismantled DC-10’s strewn about, the players played with a fierce intensity from first to last minute–driven by a desire to be signed by one of the 10 scouts, representing professional clubs world wide, sweltering beside us.

We generally agreed, should they have the academics, every player could play in a solid college program in the US. Pity the U18 team who might cross their path whether from MLS next, ECNL, NPL, EAL, USYS, USL in the US…you catch my drift. Whilst we travel, they football. Post games, we walked about the beautiful complex learning about the scouting and development process of the players within the Right to Dream Academy–new owners of the MLS expansion team in San Diego.

After heading back to Abidjan, we stopped at a mall to quickly eat before finding our way to the stadium early for a double header hoping to miss the crazy last minute rush we had encountered at earlier matches.

Crowd control here seems to be making everyone, except the dignitaries, park miles away from the stadium, forcing a long walk, through a myriad of checkpoints, the last a labyrinth of fences, somehow slowing us down, creating pulses of fans shot out the end, thereby effectively breaking up the mass of people into long sauntering line–sauntering is a necessity with the heat and humidity of mid day equatorial sun glaring, lingering and frying us from overhead.

Security was relatively lax this game, perhaps lessons learned from previous games where fans missed entire halves and more due to crowd control, creating an angry mob who finally tore open gates surging past helpless security. Yes, we too seized the opportunity to skip the line and joined the mad mobs sprint before they forced the gate closed again.

Having learned from our second stadium experience, where only water, chips and nuts where sold over a six hour period, my bag  contained two baguettes, chorizo, cheese, cookies, a bag of candies, apples, a back up battery as well as an assortment of hats and a Ghana shirt (for the second match).

I was gently mocked by my fellow travelers for expecting to make it past the level of security we had encountered in previous games. It’s interesting but gentle mocking seems a necessity on a trip of coaches somehow keeping almost everyone heading in the same direction.

Once we found our seats, we joined the locals, retreating inside the shady confines of the cavernous stadium, watching the warm ups, prepping for a brutal first half under the oppressive sun. Towards the end of halftime, a round of applause broke out, celebrating the sun finally sinking behind the stadium, leaving behind a humidity which creates a repeating cycle of sweat to cool off, cool off from sweat, dry from the heat, only to sweat again to cool off. Despite pounding water all day, I only had to use the bathroom once the entire day.

Côte d’Ivoire has not played well the entire tournament, this game was no exception. Playing at home, instead of assisting them, seemed to add to the pressure. Although they “should” have crushed what they view as their minnow opponents Equatorial Guinea, who have a few La Liga players and bunch of lower league  Spanish players, instead they had two goals called back due to VAR, the mounting displeasure from the crowd resulting in uncertainty and ineptness from the Ivorians and a 0-4 loss.

After the third goal, many of the home crowd abruptly stood up and left, with the remaining jeering their own team, hurtling water bottles off the top deck into the crowd and onto the track below. After the fourth goal, the increasingly surly crowd turned violent with fights breaking out around the stadium including a few attempted pitch invasions broken up by the “volunteer” security force (the idea being police would exacerbate the situation while even the most hardened crazy fan would treat the volunteers more gently).

We learned this morning, post game, the situation grew so bad the authorities were forced to helicopter the team back to the team hotel last night in order to escape the fans waiting to express their displeasure by attacking the team bus as they departed from underneath the stadium.

The only bright spot of the evening were the two extra time goals stunningly conceded by Ghana in the second match leaving them with two ties and a loss dropping them below Côte d’Ivoire.  Les Elephants were now given not only hope but a good chance the host nation would now advance into group play given the third place group tiebreakers.

Roadways were closed to all traffic except VIPs and fan buses within miles of the stadiums. Walking back to our bus around midnight, the settling realization the Black Stars catastrophic collapse had most likely deprived their country & us of a knockout round match this Sunday. We had reports of tear gas and destruction but seeing the wreckage awaiting some whose bus had parked on the roadway, easily attacked by the Ivorian fan, was jarring. Given our return to Ghana the next day, the wreckage from the angry fans littering the highway, walking alongside the Black Stars fans our frustration seemed silly compared to theirs. Many of the fan transport buses and Ghanian Fan bus windows were shattered, in some cases tires punctured, forcing us to walk a few miles. The stark contrast between dejected Ghanaian fans and elated, singing, drumming, dancing Côte d’Ivoire fans starkly revealed football’s brutal cut and joyous embrace.

Our long march to our bus seemed a small inconvenience compared to the stranded Ghanaian fans, frustrated not only with their Black Stars sudden collapse, but also the delay to their overnight 13-hour-plus trip back home.

We were told, “football shoes are for games only” so the players this morning trained with bare feet in dirt, rocks, glass, with total abandonment, lost to the siren song of playing football.

Our coaches asked last minute to run a session for Keita’s club, jumped in with great enthusiasm delivering, in broken French, much football love and an energetic practice for four groups divided by age.

The setting, an impoverished neighborhood (where Keita was raised and now runs a club named Gladiators) containing a mixture of material poverty, open raw sewage, limited running water, an incredibly welcoming community, folks washing laundry, elders sitting around watching, toddlers scampering about, the occasion female balancing her load on top of her head wandering through our field, and 35-plus football-mad youngsters dreaming of a future in football….a bunch of American coaches dropping in for a visit creating a surreal scene which could only be painted from football’s palette.

Now on the bus, after training the Gladiators, the group is elated, humbled and awed by football’s connecting power. A quick shower at the hotel, a bus ride to the airport and we will say goodbye, for now, to Côte d’Ivoire and Keita.

This story would not be complete without recognition of Andy Farrant, our friend and work colleague who organized the trip, slowly revealing to us snaps shots into ten years of his life in West Africa as a scout and more for Right to Dream Academy during its early days–before its ascent towards world recognition alongside other multi national football organizations such as Red Bull, Man city group and more. His calm, steady, demeanor (especially necessary after daily answering no to the question of, “Andy can we leave our bags on the bus?”) forged by years of working in Africa scouring neighborhoods, tournaments, games for the next potential player – countless hours spent in brutal conditions somehow softened by football’s cooling touch.

In our last trip pre-meeting, he warned us about nothing going as planned, time not being time, confusion and normal not being normal so buckle up butter cups and leave expectations behind. Little more could have better prepared us for this amazing trip.

As we, Cris Gilmore, Shawn Blakeman, Justin Selander, Jovan Yamagishi, Vitalis Otieno, Jesus Mata, Araia Berhane, Andy Farrant, Marcus Ziemer, Evan Ream, Amsalu Fantahun return to Ghana in a few hours, I know we will all miss their joy of life, their love of football and the love of fellow man, we have found here amongst the Ivory Coastians (?), even if it was a temporary explosion of such due to the goodwill created by hosting Africa’s Cup of Nations 2023–held in 2024. Au revoir Côte d’Ivoire!