The lesson from Abidjan is that Afcon is war, and 2027 will be our turn to die

Saturday February 10 2024

Football has changed. It has become a benign form of warfare, just like the vexing question of which West African nation cooks the best jolloff rice. It came to the continent partly from the European leagues, and the rise of African players there. ILLUSTRATION | JOSEPH NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Africa Cup of Nations is coming to a close in Cote d’Ivoire. What a delightful, crazy, and wild tournament it has been! The game on the field was the best it has been. The passions of the players and fans were out of this world.

One of the safest jobs in Africa used to be refereeing an Afcon match.

Not anymore. In one unnerving case, Mali players nearly made “muchomo” out of Egyptian referee Mohamed Adel Elsaid after he controversially blew his whistle to end their game with hosts Cote d’Ivoire after they lost the lead in the dying minutes of play. There were some scary moments, as field security was thin. If a hundred fans had stormed the pitch, it would have been over.

At this rate, within the next ten years, we shouldn’t be surprised if players and referees are killed at an Afcon tournament.

Read: OBBO: Why East Africans suck at football

Then, Africa will have its version of the Hundred Hours' War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, following rioting during the 1970 World Cup qualifiers. Though the fighting between the two countries' armies lasted only about 100 hours, it was deadly, with at least 2,000 people killed, and thousands left homeless. You lynch an Egyptian referee, Cairo will likely bomb you.


There was a lot of madness off the field. The Confederation of African Football, organisers of Afcon, issued warnings against — of all people — journalists covering the games, for “escalating unbecoming and unprofessional” conduct.

An embarrassed International Sports Press Association got involved, condemning journalists’ “deplorable” behaviour. First, all that stuff about journalists being objective flew out of the window in Cote d’Ivoire.

Journalists went bananas, uncontrollably cheering their home country teams. They insulted and got into scuffles with other partisan journalists, who were also rooting for their home teams. Ghanaian journalists got into an ugly squabble with their team – which had been routed.

An Ivorian journalist made headlines when he lost it and went dancing shirtless after the team beat Senegal on penalties.

It was all hair-raising, but as East Africa looks to jointly host the 2027 Afcon these are, nevertheless, good signs. If the passion continues to build, the stadia in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda will be full of melanin energy, putting serious money in the pockets of the hosts.

One of the major developments signalled at this Afcon was the increased engagement of female fans. Historically, the fervent female fans of African football were working class and from the townships. Many were small traders, who had the money to travel to Afcon.

Read: BUWEMBO: Afcon might restore confidence in EAC project

A bit older, they were often matriarchs, leaders in the local market or community football club, or chairpersons of fan clubs. The younger female middle-class fans watched on TV, too posh to be fighting boorish drunk male fans in the stands.

This time they came out in numbers to Cote d’Ivoire, and the games were a backdrop for Instagram and Facebook posts, and TikTok videos. Where pretty women go, attention and drama follow. An Ivorian man who went viral after he was caught asking for the phone number of a young woman sitting next to him, had to apologise to his wife and children for his unbecoming conduct.

More Instagram female fans means more TikTok young men, together increasing the reach of the tournament by millions and creating new social dynamics at Afcon.

We got here through a long, winding road. Africa’s population has exploded, and its middle class, though still smaller than Asia’s, Europe’s or North America’s, has grown by leaps and bounds from a low starting point.

That came along with the emergence of mobile phones. Where their predecessors in Kenya played Nyama-Nyama-Nyama in the dust in the past century, Omweso (village chess in Uganda) — Igisoro in Rwanda and Burundi — they were playing games, including football, on their parent’s phones, and graduated to global video games when they started growing beards and breasts.

Their mindset is more worldly than that of most of the earlier generations. Born into homes that had some money, travelling a few African countries away to watch Afcon came more naturally.

But football, too, has changed. It has become a benign form of warfare, just like the vexing question of which West African nation cooks the best jolloff rice. It came to the continent partly from the European leagues, and the rise of African players there.

Read: OBBO: For the big 2027 Afcon, we must now reinvent Community

With the likes of Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, and lately Sade Mane and Mo Salah, in the frenzy of European football that swept the continent, soon the question was which country had the best players out there — Nigeria, Cameroon, Egypt, or Senegal? National pride was at stake.

Back home, even African presidents began taking to social media to praise their footballers (and other sportspeople) who led their teams to championships. When teams face off in Afcon, it’s a superiority battle that seeks to settle these disputes.

Football has also become a platform on which African peoples, beset by corrupt, sectarian, and cruel governments, are organising a higher-minded national experience.

A sports journalist caught in this moment will easily cast aside his professional code. At Afcon, their countries are at war, and the honour of the homeland is at stake.

In that sense, the surprise is that the Ivorian journalist only ran around shirtless. It was a very short step from there for him to throw off all his clothes and streak naked across the field.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3