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The 2023 AFCON provided us with a proper footballing spectacle: the drama, on-field brilliance, great officiating, meme-worthy moments, and harmless banter. 

First off, massive congratulations to Côte d’Ivoire for organizing and staging what is regarded as one of the best CAF tournaments ever, as well as becoming the first nation to host and win the tournament since Egypt in 2006. 

AFCON 2023 opening ceremony

The 60,000-seat Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan was packed with orange-clad Ivorians, with less than 500 Nigerian fans. Nigeria’s Super Eagles stood no chance under the pressure of the home crowd.

But this AFCON was iconic even away from the field and internet banter. For me, it was a unique experience traveling from Nigeria to Abidjan to witness the games in person. Crossing the borders of three different countries by bus was very intriguing. 

From the moment I stepped into the bustling streets adorned with national flags and fervent fans, it was evident that AFCON 2023 was more than just a tournament; it was a celebration of the rich tapestry of African football. Storefronts, streets, bridges, and every part of the city were draped in flags of different African countries. 

Yemi Alade performing at the Afcon opening ceremony

The unity and diversity among fans from different nations created an electric atmosphere that transcended the boundaries of language and culture. A famous bridge (similar to the Eko link bridge in Lagos), which linked Cocody to Trenchville to the Stade Le Felicia, was beautifully decorated with lights welcoming all visitors with the term “Akwaba”.

Akwaba Mascot Afcon 2023

Unfortunately, due to my late arrival, I missed the opening games. However, I was able to catch up with the other matches. 

My first match was at the Stade Le Felicia, between the Super Eagles and Guinea Bissau. It was a really regular game, with Nigeria missing many big chances. An own goal gave the Super Eagles of Nigeria the victory.

We move.

On every match day, the government declared a public holiday, allowing everyone to flood the streets in the national team’s iconic orange jersey. 

This sense of passion and patriotism carried the Elephants into the very first game, which they won conveniently. 

But then, the team hit a snag. After losing their last group game 4-0 to Equatorial Guinea, the mood around the country soured and almost reached boiling point. Embittered fans destroyed property around the city in protest.

However, the national embarrassment was avoided when Morocco defeated Zambia, handing a lifeline back to the Ivorians. Phew! Close call. 

Read how Zambia won the 2012 AFCON against all odds

The fans trouped to the streets to celebrate, donning Moroccan T-shirts and flags with the famous song “Coup D’Marteau” playing on loudspeakers. 

Throughout the tournament, underdogs defied expectations, weaving stories of triumph against the odds. Cape Verde shocked us all — and so did the beautiful cabo-verdianas

Witnessing the jubilation of fans as their teams overcame adversity left an indelible mark on my memory. It was a reminder that football, at its core, is a game of passion, unpredictability, and unbridled joy. 

Exploring Abidjan’s lively neighborhoods, I discovered the soulful connection between football and the diverse communities that embraced the tournament. 

The city’s vibrant culture seamlessly intertwined with the football fervor as local traditions and music became an integral part of the AFCON experience.

This mood bled into the games. It bled into everything. Players danced to their locker rooms and shared jokes with legends and club teammates. 

Man carry Ivorian flags on the street

Despite the overall positivity surrounding the festival, a few dark chapters played out in front of the world. 

The Gambian team had to return to Banjul after their chartered flight to Abidjan unexpectedly lost oxygen nine minutes after takeoff. 

Following the Black Stars’ 2-2 draw with Mozambique, incensed Ghanaian media blocked the team bus and wanted to speak with the players and management. 

We also saw the protest from the Democratic Republic of Congo team against the ongoing crisis in Eastern Congo. 

Most notably, over fifty journalists who made the two-hour drive from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro were involved in an accident, leaving some of them badly hurt. 

Thankfully, these events turned out to be minor hiccups overall — and the world now knows about the plight of the Congolese. 

With no fatalities reported due to organizational mistakes, the Ivorian Football Federation successfully hosted the event. In the wake of what appeared to be an impending relegation, the Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire went on to lift the trophy. 

Due to pure luck, the Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire made it to the knockout stage as one of the best of the worst four. However, as soon as they crossed that boundary, extraordinary nationalistic fervor combined with strategy, luck, and destiny worked in their favor. 

They tied Nigeria’s record in the competition last Sunday when they defeated the Super Eagles, the nation’s top-ranked squad, 2-1 to win the AFCON title for a record third time. 

This was a tournament of surprises. The bookmakers got everything wrong. Favorites changed faster than a Quick Change magician. Egypt failed to advance to the round of 16, with their star man Mohammed Salah withdrawing from the competition early due to injury. 

Sebastian Haller celebrating winner against Nigeria

Sebastian Haller, after surviving a battle with cancer, found his spark during the later stages and stepped up to score the winning goal. Even the Nigerians couldn’t begrudge him this heartwarming comeback story.

Future stars also announced themselves to the world in the likes of Senegalese youngster Lamine Camara and Côte d’Ivoire’s Simon Adingra, who played a pivotal role in their victory.  

Coaches were also in the firing line. Following their shocking loss to Mauritania, Algeria fired their coach, Djamel Belmadi. Côte d’Ivoire followed suit after a disastrous group stage showing. Ghana got rid of Chris Houghton. And Egypt let Rui Vittoria go. 

Ivorians celebrating victory at AFCON

While covering the tournament, I also took the time to enjoy the banter between Nigerians and their many rivals, such as Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa. The banter is sweeter when you are dishing it out. And the memes? Marvellous.

Although Nigeria’s golden generation of strikers couldn’t soar above the Elephants, I return to Lagos with a lot of positives from the footballing spectacle at the AFCON 2023 in Abidjan. 

See you in Morocco!

Who wrote this?

Okpanku has been involved in several disputes that have been brought before the FIFA Tribunal. Additionally, he actively engages in grassroots coaching and strongly advocate for the dynamic nature of football.

Okpanku Chijioke
Okpanku has been involved in several disputes that have been brought before the FIFA Tribunal. Additionally, he actively engages in grassroots coaching and strongly advocate for the dynamic nature of football.

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