The Africa Cup of Nations: When a country’s economy also plays soccer

Ivory Coast has invested around $1 billion in the organization of this competition. Despite positive economic impacts in the short-term — as well as the exhibition of ‘soft power’ inside and outside the continent — there are doubts about the future profitability of the newly-built infrastructure

Copa Africana de Naciones 2024
Opening ceremony of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) at the Ebimpe Stadium in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on January 13, 2024.LUC GNAGO (REUTERS)

Forty years after doing so for the first time, Ivory Coast is hosting the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) again. On the pitch, the host team is fighting to remain in play and win its third-ever continental title. Off the field, however, the country is looking for another triumph: to show itself to the rest of Africa — and the world — as the capable organizer of a grand event, which began on January 13 and will conclude on February 11. It’s still unknown, however, if — in the long-term — the country will come out ahead on the economic front.

“In the short-term, the tournament has a positive effect,” affirms Roméo Boye, in a phone interview with EL PAÍS. He holds a PhD in Economics and is a researcher at the Ivorian Center for Economic and Social Research. The high expectations, the festive atmosphere and the arrival of foreign visitors are a boost for hotels, restaurants, bars and souvenir sales. “This [four-week-long period] will have a positive impact on our GDP this year,” says Boye, who also mentions the inflow of foreign currency as good news for the Central Bank. According to data from the World Bank, the GDP of the country — the largest economy in the West African and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and the world’s leading producer of cocoa and cashew nuts — is around $70 billion.

On the frontlines of AFCON are 10,000 volunteers. Arsène Ehui — a doctoral student — assures EL PAÍS that “economically, this event is shaking things up. It’s given birth to new businesses, such as bars, restaurants, maquis [small, popular, open-air canteens, typical of the country], hotels and spaces dedicated especially to the tournament,” he explains. However, in certain cases, he clarifies, these are temporary boosts.

“When AFCON ends, I’ll have to look for another job,” Kone Kadiatou acknowledges. He’s a 27-year-old from Yamoussoukro, the political capital of the Ivory Coast (Abidjan has been designated as the economic capital), while collecting papers and bottles after a match between Burkina Faso and Angola in the Charles Konan Banny Stadium.

Just as some businesses have proliferated under the spotlight of the Africa Cup, others have perished in its shadow. Before the ball got rolling, the authorities closed street stalls citing, for example, health and safety reasons. “They’ve ruined the subsistence economy of a good part of the small merchants,” laments Jean Arsène Yao, a historian, journalist and professor in the Spanish department at the Université Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in Abidjan. Informal settlements have also been affected. “The media has already commented on this issue and has decided to leave it behind, deal with it later,” comments Julien Adhepeau, professor of Advertising Communications at the same university.

The first time Ivory Coast hosted this competition — back in 1984 — there were two venues. On this occasion, five have been chosen: Abidjan, Yamoussoukro, San Pedro, Korhogo and Bouaké. This geographical dispersion — which distributes attention and spending — can contribute to the development of cities. There have also been improvements in infrastructure as a result of the preparations.

It’s precisely this aspect that led economist Andrew Zimbalist to point out — in a publication from 2010 — that mega sporting events can leave a deeper mark on developing countries, by serving as a catalyst for these public works. “The impact on infrastructure construction is very important,” Adhepeau emphasizes. “There were many problems with movement within the country. Nowadays, you can go from Abidjan to Korhogo — from south to north — in a very short time.” Although, Yao points out, before organizing the event, the country’s development plans already entailed such improvements.

In addition to roads, the federal government has invested in the construction and improvement of bridges, airports, 24 training centers and “AFCON cities,” with residences for the international delegations. It has also allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to four new stadiums and the refurbishment of two existing ones. In total, last August, the bill amounted to $1 billion, according to what the then-sports minister Paulin Danho told Africa24. He was subsequently dismissed along with the prime minister in October, after floods claimed the lives of dozens of people and displaced hundreds of thousands. The new stadium in Abidjan was also ruined by the water. Some media outlets say that the real cost of the soccer tournament is $1.6 billion. Given such a figure, there are questions about whether the country will come out ahead financially.

“I believe that different economic impacts must be measured,” explains Juan Carlos Martínez Lázaro, professor of Economics at IE University in Spain. On the one hand, the balance of the income statement — with costs and income (entry passes, subsidies, sponsorships, broadcast rights) — “tends to be in deficit,” he notes. On the other hand, there are intangible benefits in the medium or long-term when a country capitalizes on the successful hosting of a major event. “Ivory Coast can sell the image that it’s an efficient, safe country that can receive tourism... or even receive investments,” Martínez Lázaro points out.

A 2016 analysis by the Harvard Kennedy School — based on competitions such as the World Cup or the Olympic Games — indicates that (in general, but with exceptions) while these events can impact tourism, this influence is usually ephemeral, less-than-expected and dependent on other factors. However, the analysis acknowledges that real benefits usually exceed the costs.

The long-term impact — currently unknown for Professor Boye — will depend, in his opinion, on the ability to keep the infrastructure alive, to prevent it from joining the list of “white elephants,” the term for large construction projects that end up being practically unused. “The key here is to generate enough resources to be able to take care of these stadiums and infrastructure,” he warns. Idriss Diallo — president of the Ivorian Football Federation — stated that the intention is to make the country a football operations center for the region. In addition to the current tournament, Ivory Coast also hosted the CAF Women’s Champions League in 2023. The problem is that, today, there isn’t much competition among local teams.

“The level is very low. So, I’m not sure that people are going to go see a match in Yamoussoukro or San Pedro [in the regular season], for example,” Boye admits. He conditions the long-term success of the event on strengthening the domestic soccer sector. Yao shares this opinion. “When February 11 is over, what use are we going to have for all those stadiums?” Another thing, he says, is the impact that hosting tournaments can have on sectors such as hospitality. Even so, he doesn’t believe that the accounts are going to come out in the green: “The country has gone into debt and we don’t know how we’re going to be able to recover or repay the money that was borrowed.”

Other parties — including the government — see these infrastructure projects as an engine of development for national sports. Ehui — a doctoral student and a volunteer with AFCON — also believes that better facilities will give a boost to the local sports scene. But Daghau Komenan — an Ivorian historian who specializes in International Relations — doesn’t see this vision so clearly. “To turn Ivory Coast into a football power, they first have to first pay the players better,” he scoffs. “[We must] truly professionalize the sector, clean it of corruption and strengthen local teams, so that the country has a quality championship that attracts African talents,” he asserts.

“We have more stadiums and I think there will be businesses inside them. More job offers will be created and I think it will be positive,” says Adhepeau, the professor in Advertising Communications.

Ivory Coast came to host this Africa Cup after two internal conflicts in the first two decades of the millennium, while also having navigated a political storm four years ago. The first civil war lasted five years — from 2002 to 2007 — while the second arose after the elections at the end of 2010, lasting almost until the following summer. From that last conflict, Alassane Ouattara emerged as president and — after having been in office for two terms, the maximum allowed by the Constitution — he decided to seek a third mandate in 2020, which sparked protests and altercations in the country. “In my opinion, what the government wanted to achieve through this Cup was to give an image of a reconciled country,” says Yao, an Ivorian historian.

The president of the organizing committee — Francois Amichia — pointed to reasons beyond economic ones last December, in an interview with the BBC. “When Ivory Coast decided to organize this Nations Cup, it wasn’t to make money, but to reposition itself,” he said.

“I don’t think there is a financial gain that can cover [the expense of the tournament],” Komenan shrugs. “I think that, more than promoting the economy, it’s about presenting the government, giving a friendly face to the world or to Africa,” he explains.

And it’s not only about the use of soft power for the purposes of foreign policy. These types of competitions are generally capable of creating a feeling of togetherness, of common direction, even if it’s temporary. “On a political level, it’s important,” reflects Adhepeau. “It allows us to create a kind of unity behind this team.” For Komenan, the issue goes a little further: he believes that the government has its sights set on next year’s elections. Ivory Coast, he says, has always enjoyed a powerful status in, at least, West Africa. “And people yearn a little for that status,” he explains. “And the current government is trying — at least cosmetically — to give this impression. I think that’s what they’re going to capitalize on.”

Meanwhile, at the Charles Konan Banny stadium, relations between the countries of the continent are following a different course. The Burkinabé public (citizens of neighboring Burkina Faso) left minutes before the end of the match, angry with their team for losing against Angola. Bernard Suka — a member of the Angolan Football Federation — has traveled to Ivory Coast from Luanda, his country’s capital. “I love meeting people from other countries,” he smiles, as he greets a group of Burkinabes who congratulate him on the victory. The stadium looks new and shiny. Even the chairs in the press room still have plastic wrapping.

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