The Ivorian authorities and the Organizing Committee of the African Cup of Nations (Cocan) had promised “the biggest CAN in history”, putting together figures that would make one’s head spin: 1.5 billion dollars ( around €1.4 billion) invested in renovating and upgrading infrastructure, stadiums capable of accommodating up to 60,000 fans, over 5,000 accreditation requests received (more than double that of Cameroon in 2021), 1 million visitors expected in the stadiums… The atmosphere promised to be electric in this football-mad country which had not organized this continental competition since 1984.

A promise kept in the streets, maquis (restaurants) and “fan zones”. But not in the stadiums, where desperately empty stands line up match after match. The competition kicked off on Saturday January 13 with a match between Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau, should have filled the famous Alassane-Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé, the new showcase of Ivorian football. The Head of State did not fail to take a tour of the stadium to cheers around the newly renovated pitch, before the launch of the sumptuous opening ceremony.

However, the number of spectators, given at the end of the match, confirmed the general impression: the stadium was half full. 36,858 supporters were present, according to the speaker’s announcement, in the 60,000 seats in the brand new venue. A void which marred the otherwise festive atmosphere, to the point that in the stands, the imprecations were not aimed at the Guinea-Bissau team, as usual, but at the ticket holders who had not deigned to make the trip.

Why such a defection, when Cocan had announced, well before the competition, that all tickets for the Ivory Coast matches had been sold? Where have these approximately 23,000 ghost spectators gone?

Black market, corruption, boycott?

Yacine Idriss Diallo, the president of the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF), himself admitted after the match that he could not explain these absences. “Were people afraid of the rain, the distance, the conditions? », he asked, referring to the uncertain weather and the position of the Ebimpé stadium, in the suburbs of Abidjan, difficult to access to the point that official recommendations advised leaving at midday to be sure of be installed before the show begins at 6 p.m. Factors that are certainly legitimate but which hardly explain the 23,000 defections.

On social networks, frustrated Ivorian supporters are shouting “TicketGate” and putting forward several hypotheses: black market, corruption, even a boycott orchestrated to harm the prestige of the head of state, who has bet very heavily on this competition.

Seeing the scandal emerging, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Cocan gave initial explanations on Monday. They first specify that of the 60,000 seats in the Ebimpé stadium, more than 9,000 are non-usable, allocated in particular to stewarding staff, security agents and medical teams. The stands can actually accommodate 50,786 people, which means that it was not 23,142 ghost spectators haunting Ebimpé, but 13,928.

According to their explanations, CAF and Cocan therefore only put on sale 47,000 seats for the opening match, leaving for an unexplained reason 3,786 seats out of commerce. Of these 47,000 tickets, a portion was sold to the public, another reserved for businesses and institutions, and a final portion granted to CAF for its partners, sponsors and foreign sports federations. The details of the distribution have not been given, but we mention on the Cocan side a third of the places reserved for CAF, according to the host agreement signed by Ivory Coast.

The document does not specify, however, why fewer than 37,000 seats were occupied out of the 47,000 seats sold. Especially since the competition was to be played behind closed doors, a final sale of tickets was carried out a few hours before kick-off, plunging the supporters into perplexity.

Strengthening physical sales

The answer to this question can be found in so-called “group” ticket purchases, intended for businesses and communities. Several of them had reserved dozens of tickets, explains a source at Cocan, but canceled their reservations at the last minute. These are the tickets that were put back on sale on the day of the opening match. But all of them found buyers, which therefore does not solve the mystery of the empty places.

Another possible explanation is the dysfunctions of the black market. We still found on social networks, Saturday afternoon, dozens of places offered up to five or ten times their initial price. Part of it was probably fake, scammers having sniffed out the opportunity. The other could come from unscrupulous resellers who made reservations in their name on the official ticket office, which limited purchases for individuals to six tickets per match and 30 across the entire competition, or who bought in bulk in the name of a company. The prohibitive prices and short deadlines may have discouraged buyers, to the point that greedy resellers would have found themselves with many unsold tickets on their hands by the time of kick-off.

After the opening match, Sunday’s matches did not attract crowds and the group matches took place in almost empty stadiums. The match between Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria was played in front of 8,500 spectators at the Ebimpé stadium. The phenomenon is recurring at each CAN. At the top of the explanatory factors is the cost of traveling to the host country to follow its national team, out of reach for the vast majority of supporters – with the exception of diasporas living there – even for nationals of neighboring countries. like Burkina Faso, Ghana or Mali.

But Monday’s matches saw better attendances in Yamoussoukro and Bouaké (where the mayor even distributed thousands of tickets for free), with the stands almost full, and the organizers hope to see more and more supporters as the match progresses. progress in the competition. Prime Minister Robert Beugré Mambé declared on Monday “to take charge of the problem” and promised “results within forty-eight hours”. The same day, CAF and Cocan announced the strengthening of physical ticket sales in the country’s 51 points of sale. The result is particularly expected for the next match of the Ivorian Elephants, who will face Nigeria on Thursday.