A woman in a white shirt ran into the road, whipped her wig off and twirled it around in the air.
For the second game in a row at the Africa Cup of Nations, Ivory Coast scored a dramatic equaliser and had to grind through an extra 30 minutes. This time, they had to survive with 10 men after Odilon Kossounou was sent off in the first half.
Glasses smashed, liquor spilled and chairs were flipped when Oumar Diakite scored with seconds left to prevent a penalty shootout. Supporters jumped up and down or started breakdancing on the floor, unable to decide on the best form of celebration. Expletives were hurled at the television when tempers flared on the pitch and Mali’s players confronted referee Mohamed Adel at full-time.
Motorbikes flew along the road doing wheelies, chased by groups of children. Two men walking around with a speaker blasted “Coup du marteau”, the tournament’s unofficial anthem, prompting young and old to shake their hips.
Ivory Coast have been on the brink of elimination on multiple occasions at AFCON 2023 yet somehow, they have reached the semi-finals.
People were beeping their car horns in excitement on the streets of Abidjan five hours before Ivory Coast’s quarter-final against Mali, their biggest game in nearly a decade.
The last time the stakes were this high was in 2015 when they won the competition after beating Ghana on penalties in the final. None of the current squad hold the same star power as former captain Yaya Toure but the pressure is more intense for the 2023 hosts. Mali shares a border with Ivory Coast and several members of their squad, including Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Yves Bissouma, were born there, which added a little bit of spice too.
The traffic in Abidjan is chaotic. Nobody knows how many lanes there are supposed to be so drivers, typically in red Suzukis with dented bodywork, forcefully create new ones and hope the mess untangles itself. As kick-off approaches, tensions increase and arguments break out as supporters desperately attempt to make it back home, or to the local bar, in time.
There is a small community called Biafra on the banks of the Ebrie Lagoon, which shares a name with the partially recognised republic that declared independence from Nigeria in 1967 and existed for three years. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the sandy pitch where children replicate their heroes by playing football and hoping that none of them kick it into the nearby bushes, where there is a small group of goats grazing. Women carefully observe while stirring pots of stew. Lizards scuttle around trees which have been painted green and white, with their trunks supposed to represent orange to complete the Ivorian flag.
The ball drops near The Athletic and the group’s ringleader insists I go in goal. Then minutes later, after being nutmegged on multiple occasions, I retire after treading on the foot of a striker who appeared out of nowhere at the back post, embarrassed but extremely grateful he did not cry.
Across the road is a more traditional ground but the entrance is barred. There are murals of famous Ivorian sports stars painted the entire way around it, including former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, AFCON 2015 winner Kolo Toure, taekwondo Olympic gold medallist Cheick Sallah Cisse, sprinter Marie-Josee Ta Lou and basketball player Nisre Zouzoua.
If you peer over the top of the wall at the Biafra sports complex, the pitch looks in good condition but the rest of the facility needs urgent work. Mavis, a waitress at a bar situated on a corner of the ground, insists South Africa trained here on Thursday ahead of their quarter-final with Cape Verde.
There is a canopy outside the bar which contains a projector beaming the Ivory Coast’s match onto a makeshift television screen, a piece of white tarpaulin wrapped around two wooden poles. An issue with the projector means it distorts colour and makes it look like Ivory Coast are playing in dark pink.
There are around 30 people watching the game here, drinking beer while smoke swirls in the air. A child working at a nearby stall peeks under the fence to check the score. Two police officers take up front-row seats, with one of them sipping on an alcoholic beverage. The other leads the applause when Mali’s appeal for a penalty inside 10 minutes is dismissed because of an offside in the build-up. The officers rotate seats every half an hour with another colleague, clearly taking it in turns to keep an eye on the streets.
Kossounou’s red card meant the bar was silent at half-time apart from one man’s chants of “Allez Les Elephants” and another who kept blowing on a trumpet with the same passion as Louis Armstrong but none of the finesse.
When Nene Dorgeles put Mali ahead with 20 minutes left, one man grabbed his jacket and left. A few moments later the Islamic call to prayer from the nearby mosque prompted a couple more people to disappear. Others stopped looking at the screen and switched attention to their phones, resigned to defeat until Simon Adingra equalised and the lady in the wig darted through, screaming with happiness.
Those scenes were tame compared to what happened in Treichville after Diakite scored and Emerse Fae’s side secured their place in the last four. Strangers were hugging and fist-bumping each other in the middle of the road while trucks with people hanging out of the windows zoomed past. There was a party at a petrol station as a car pulled up and played music. People in Marcory stopped random vehicles and jumped into the back to continue the party at a different location.
IVORY COAST score a LAST-MINUTE GOAL in extra-time 🔥🔥
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) February 3, 2024
Cries of “merci Maroc” still pierced the air 10 days after Morocco beat Zambia 1-0, the result that ensured Ivory Coast progressed to the knockout stages as one of the best third-placed sides. It tells you everything you need to know about this crazy, unpredictable and wonderful tournament that Morocco are not in the semi-finals but the host nation are.
Ivory Coast’s performances have been underwhelming but they are moving closer to lifting the trophy on home soil. Before fans can get too excited, there is the small matter of Wednesday’s semi-final against DR Congo.
“This AFCON is beautiful and the best,” Gnep-zo says ahead of breaking into song with his friends Zouglou and Sonya. “We know this cup is ours. I know we are going to win. I can feel it.”
(Top photo: Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images)