ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST: All is on track for African football’s biennial showpiece, the Africa Cup of Nations, according to organizers in the Ivory Coast who are confident their security measures will prevent a repeat of the tragedy that overshadowed the 2022 edition in Cameroon.
Ivory Coast may be one of the heavyweights in African football but this will be only the second time they host the finals, after 1984 when the tournament featured just eight teams instead of the 24 this time round.
The competition runs from Jan. 13 to Feb. 11 with Senegal defending the title they won for the first time after beating Egypt on penalties.
It retains its 2023 moniker despite the decision by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in July last year to postpone it from the original dates in the northern hemisphere summer owing to fears over staging matches during the rainy season.
Around $1.5 billion has been invested which includes funding improved roads — principally a complete overhaul of the 350-kilometer coastal road which links Abidjan — the economic capital — to the port city of San Pedro, cutting in half the travel time between the two.
Aside from the external security risk posed by jihadists based in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, Ivorian authorities have moved to quell fears over crowd control which has been the source of most anxiety due to what happened in Yaounde two years ago.
The last-16 clash between hosts Cameroon and the Comoros resulted in eight dying and dozens injured due to a crush as home fans piled in to watch.
Youssouf Kouyate, director-general of the Ivory Coast police, told AFP they had measures in place for all six stadia to avoid a similar tragedy — with organizers expecting 1.5 million fans from outside the country.
“We are going to open the gates to the stadia very early, we will ensure the spectators form an orderly queue so they can enter the stadium without any trouble,” he said.
“We are going to demand spectators come early.”
There will be some 17,000 soldiers and police deployed for the tournament and 2,500 stadium staff.
“It is after all not the first big sporting event Ivory Coast has had to organize,” said Kouyate.
“We hosted the Francophone Games (in 2017). We are calm.”
It was not so calm a few months ago when to the embarrassment of the organizers torrential rain flooded the pitch at the 60,000-capacity Ebimpe Olympic Stadium which had been specially constructed at enormous cost for the tournament.
The stadium is due to host 10 matches including the opening game between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau on Jan. 13, and the final on Feb. 11.
The authorities put it down to a freak downpour but all the same it resulted in Patrick Achi and Paulin Danho being removed from their posts as prime minister and sports minister respectively.
Achi’s successor Robert Beugre Mambe — who also assumed the role of sports minister — has been charged with “organizing the most beautiful Africa Cup of Nations in history.”
Three months on from the shame of the flooding it appears under Mambe’s stewardship the pitch is now resistant to a similar catastrophe.
“We were all disturbed by what we saw,” said Idriss Diallo, president of the Ivorian Football Federation, at the beginning of December while sitting in a stand at the stadium with rain tipping down.
“But the authorities took the matter in hand and the pitch has been completely relaid.”
“It is fit for purpose,” he added.
There have been concerns that the main stadium plus the five others to be used in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, Bouake, San Pedro and Korhogo will become white elephants.
Organizers hope that the First Division teams — the majority of whom play in Abidjan — will attract larger crowds due to the proximity of the stadia.
Diallo thinks there will also be a knock-on effect globally.
“Thanks to our stadia we will become a hub for teams in the region who do not have such facilities,” he said.
“Before they all went to play in Morocco, now they will come here.”