Ongolo Proud African

Is the Africa Cup of Nations experience worth the struggle?

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
12 February 2024

The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is Africa’s biggest sporting tournament. At a press conference on Friday 9 February 2024, Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) President Patrice Motsepe stated that nearly two billion people around the world had tuned in to watch AFCON2023 since it began on 13 January 2024. The AFCON Final on Sunday 11 February 2024 had more viewers than the American Football Super Bowl which took place on the same day.

I have always wanted to attend the Africa Cup of Nations in person. I decided that 2024 was going to be it. The tournament brings together more people from all over the continent than any other event. I decided to travel even after my home country, Zambia, was eliminated during the group stage. 

I travelled to Côte d’Ivoire to watch the last week of the tournament after seeing the thrilling group stages and knock-out rounds on television. Being in the stadiums in Abidjan and watching the matches live exceeded my expectations - it was so much fun! Unfortunately, everything else around that was exhausting and nearly broke my African spirit. 

AFCON2023 Final at Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara D'Ebimpé
AFCON2023 Final at Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara D'Ebimpé. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba for ONGOLO.


COCAN 2023, under the supervision of CAF, organised AFC2023. The organisers launched online ticket sales on 9 November 2023. The announcement stated: “Ticket prices range from 5000 FCFA (about 8 US Dollars) for Category Three (3), 10000 FCFA (about 16 US Dollars) for Category Two (2) and 15000 FCFA (about 24 US Dollars).” They also launched over-the-counter ticket sales on 14 December 2023 to allow locals to buy tickets at the same prices. 


The online ticketing system was initially open to clients of one of the event sponsors, VISA. In an embarrassing turn of events, the website was a disaster with many unable to actually purchase tickets from it. Those who did manage to buy tickets online used multiple devices and left them running for days until they landed on the sales page. I wonder how much VISA made in Merchant Service Fees from the Africa Cup of Nations… 

A Cameroonian guy I met on a tour bus to Yamoussoukro said the website worked well the day after Côte d’Ivoire lost 0-4 to Equatorial Guinea and were on the verge of elimination from the tournament. What he and others surmised is that COCAN panicked and released tickets to avoid having empty stadiums. He was able to secure semi-final and final category 1 tickets at the original prices. The truth is that despite being a popular tournament around Africa, only a small number of international fans make the trip.

It became more challenging to obtain tickets as Côte d’Ivoire progressed through the tournament. The website continued to under-perform, and yet COCAN made a last minute decision to only sell Finals tickets online. The store outlets never seemed to have tickets and were not selling tickets far in advance. On Monday 5 February 2024, the stores were waiting for tickets for the Wednesday match. There were no tickets available for the third place or final that weekend. In the background, it is said that there were issues reconciling web and physical tickets.

As a result, the stadiums were never full. So many empty seats deprived fans of a once-in-a lifetime experience. 


Prior to leaving for Abidjan, I had connected with journalists and people working for CAF and FIFA on X (formerly Twitter) who have experience attending Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. I was concerned that I had not been able to buy tickets online before travelling. Everyone said the same thing: “Don’t worry. We'll sort out the tickets when you arrive”. 

In typical African fashion, my Ethiopian Airlines flight landed in Abidjan an hour later than scheduled at 3pm local time on Friday 2 February 2024. The Nigeria v Angola match was starting at 5pm! I had two hours to get through immigration, collect my bags, battle the Abidjan traffic, leave my bags at my hotel and run to the stadium which was close by. The plan was to buy a ticket at the stadium. I was the first off the plane and in the line for the e-visa stamp. The business class immigration line was quiet and I completed the immigration formalities quickly.


Whilst waiting to collect my luggage, I received a message from the contact of a journalist who had a ticket for the match. The ticket cost XOF 40,000 (€60) or 2.7 times the official price but I happily paid. So far so good! I made it to my seat 10 minutes after the match had started and had a great time.

The following day, the same contact offered me a semi-final ticket for $300 and a finals ticket for $1,000. I refused on principle - how do you justify the $275 and $975 mark-up? I can pay over $1,000 to watch Beyoncé or Taylor Swift but the Africa Cup of Nations does not deliver the same value for money. He then said I could watch the matches from the fan zones if I didn’t want to pay these prices, which annoyed me immensely. Why was I paying $300 a night for a hotel room in Abidjan to watch the tournament on television?


I contemplated cutting my losses and heading back to the UK after two days. Africa can be exhausting and my patience runs out quickly. I called Singapore Airlines to see if I could change my flight and they refused. I had redeemed Krisflyer points and flown Ethiopian Airlines from the UK and would fly Turkish Airlines on the way back. C'était trop compliqué! (Side note: I suddenly didn’t feel guilty about dumping Star Alliance for One World effective March 2023) 

The following day (Monday 5 February) I contemplated forfeiting my business class ticket and buying an economy class ticket back to the UK but the slow service at the Turkish Airlines office in Abidjan made that a non-starter. I accepted my fate that I would be staying in Abidjan and was going to hustle until I got those tickets.


I went to Le Postel (The Post Office) in Plateau, which was one of the official over-the-counter sales points near my hotel. I thought the security guards were mistaken when they pointed me to people sitting on the grass under a tree when I asked for tickets line. But no, that was the group of people waiting to buy tickets for the semi-finals. It was just after 10am and the office had told them to come back at 2pm - they decided to wait. I value my time so I moved on.

I hailed a battered orange taxi on the street and headed to Playce Marcory, which was another official ticket sales point. The driver knew I was a foreigner and contemplated ripping me off but the annoyed and sweaty look on my face must have dissuaded him from overdoing it so he only charged me XOF 1,500 ($2.50) instead of XOF 1,000 ($1.65).

The Playce Marcory store looked promising - it was an actual store (no tree in sight) with a printer and what looked like CAF tickets. Alas, they were not selling tickets for the Côte d’Ivoire v Democratic Republic of Congo semi-final match either. The man whose voice I captured on video said they had been told to stop printing tickets. It became clear that any games that involved the host country were being manipulated behind the scenes. They did have tickets for the other Nigeria v South Africa semi-final match in Bouaké. I actually wanted to watch that match but how was I going to get to Bouaké??


Leaving the Playce Marcory store, I decided that if I couldn’t go back to the UK, then Plan C was to fly to Cape Verde and enjoy a few days on the beach and fly back to Abidjan to catch my return flight to the UK. I was already on as I walked out of the mall. I had already told my hotel that there was a possibility that I would cut short my 10-day stay. As I got into the Yango (African version of Uber) to return to my hotel and finalise my new plan, my former colleague, whom I had met for dinner at the weekend, called to say she found someone who could assist. Talk about divine intervention.


I used to work for an international emerging markets bank and covered Africa. I had visited Abidjan twice in 2015 to attend the Africa Development Bank Meetings and organise my bank's meetings and our top-billed cocktail reception. The bank was located next to my hotel so I went over to meet my former colleagues. The hero of my story is someone who joined the bank after I had left and we met for the first time. His wife worked for the company that printed the AFCON2023 tickets and would try to help. They were the heroes of my AFCON story.

They helped me get tickets for the semi-finals and finals at the original prices set by COCAN. I was supposed to go to the third place match between South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo but the person who promised ticket them a ticket no longer had them a few hours before the match. Overall, I was grateful to be able to see three of the four matches I had planned to watch and hope to return the favour to these wonderful people who showed me great kindness.

Lesson: Growing up, I always struggled with the fact that Africa is all about who you are and who you know. It creates inequity. Maybe I am a naive native as a Twitter Troll once called me. I do think that most of Africa’s problems would work if we put systems in place to do things properly.


Watching the Nigeria v Angola match at Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
Watching the Nigeria v Angola match at Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba for ONGOLO

The Africa Cup of Nations matches I attended were at the two main stadiums in Abidjan. The newly-renovated Félix Houphouët-Boigny (FHB) stadium is located in the central business district of Plateau and close to Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the iconic Cocody bridge. It has a capacity of 33,000 and had 18,757 people when I attended the Nigeria v Angola quarter-final and 21,975 for the third place match I missed. My hotel was right next to the stadium and it was relatively easy to get to by foot. The security check-points moved quickly and the stadium ushers were professional.


FHB is much easier to get to than the main stadium in Ebimpé. The Alassane Ouattara Olympic Stadium D'Ebimpé is located an hour's drive from Plateau. It opened in 2020 and has a capacity of 60,000. It is impressive and undoubtedly one of the best stadiums in Africa. I watched the Côte d’Ivoire v. Democratic Republic of Congo semi-final, which was attended by 51,020 people. Again, short of a full house. For the final match where Côte d’Ivoire beat Nigeria, the official statistics were that 57,094 people were in attendance but this was not true. The stadium far exceeded the 60,000 as some fans sat or stood in the aisles. 

A Yango taxi to Ebimpé cost me XOF 12,000 ($20) each way when I attended the semi-final on a weekday. For the final on Sunday 11 February, I paid XOF 7,000 ($12) to the stadium and X0F 10,000 ($16.50) on the way back with the same driver, who kindly decided to wait for me till well past midnight. I gave him a €20 tip. On both occasions, I arrived in Ebimpé 5-7 hours before the matches started and hang-out at Restaurant Etihad, which is a short walk from the stadium. The family who run it are very friendly and the son, Constant, speaks French, English, Spanish and some Arabic - he has the potential to be a great tour guide. 


Leaving Ebimpé was hectic. One needs the kind of ticket and car that allows you to drive to the stadium. I did not have that with a Yango. I was hot footing in and out. After the semi-final, I went back to Restaurant Etihad and waited 75 minutes before I could get a Yango. For the finals match, I was with a group of young locals - one of whom worked for my former bank - who decided to walk because the traffic jams were bad and even VIPs struggled to leave the stadium. My taxi driver was parked near the security cordon about 5km away from the stadium and I was carrying a heavy backpack with my camera gear. Dread! Fortunately, I hitched a ride with some random strangers and made it back to the city in one piece around 2am. I sang hymns that night!


At both stadiums, the only stressful part is making your way through the long lines and security, who are too touchy feely for my liking. I carried my Nikon DSLR camera with several lenses and wore my Go-Pro on my forehead, which raised a lot of questions from the security personnel. Thankfully, I wore custom made t-shirts with my blog website address and explained that I was a blogger. I only found out later that many people were being refused entry with big cameras. The perks of being an ignorant foreigner.

Past security, everything is as you would expect from a high profile event. The stadiums are very nice, well laid-out and worth the $1b Côte d’Ivoire spent on infrastructure for hosting the Africa Cup of Nations. The ushers were so professional and helpful. The ticket scanners worked properly. However during the final, staff failed to control the crowd, with some spectators sitting in the aisles and refusing the move. People who had tickets could not get to their seats which had been taken by other people. Next time they should put the police or army in charge - no one messes with them.

With Angolan winger Deivi Miguel Vieira aka Gilberto
Fan pic with Angolan winger Deivi Miguel Vieira aka Gilberto taken at Hotel Tiama, Abidjan. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba for ONGOLO


The vibe you see on television cannot compare to the feeling of being in the stadium. It was so much fun and the Ivorians really know how to support their team. We cheered, jeered, did the Mexican wave and danced to the unofficial AFCON2023 song, Coup du marteau, by Tam Sir, on repeat. That feeling almost made all the stress worthwhile. I forgot my earplugs though - it was very noisy, especially during the final.

The matches move much quicker in person than they do on television. You also see a lot more - the water sprinklers were turned on during the half-time break which cooled the pitch and the whole stadium. The dance cam during the half-time break is also fun.

Ivorians are friendly, welcoming and kind - I never felt alone. People were generally well behaved and I didn't see any fights or rowdy scenes afterwards.


Firstly, if CAF and the local organising committees should outsource ticket sales to global companies like Ticketmaster, which also operate in South Africa. The process of buying tickets for Africa Cup of Nations should be transparent, reliable and efficient. It was definitely not at AFCON2023 and was my biggest grievance.

Secondly, the local organising committee, which consists of the local Football Association and the Ministry of Sports needs to include other key ministries. The tourism ministry is key - thousands of people travelled to watch AFCON2023 and struggled to find things to do. My 5-star hotel did not have a concierge desk and staff were unhelpful when I asked for activities. The existing tour operators are not easily accessible and the two that I used were subpar. The Ministry of Transport is also important - deals with national, regional and international airports to lock in pricing can help more Africans attend the tournament. Lastly, the ministry responsible for immigration should waive visas for those coming for AFCON. I spent $136 on a three-month multiple entry visa using Global Visa Services. I had to write and sign a letter to the Director of Immigration. Why?? This is not an unreasonable ask.

The next AFCON 2025 will be held in Morocco. Their tourism sector and infrastructure is highly developed and they are likely to have fewer issues than Côte d’Ivoire. None of this will matter though if tickets remain a challenge.


Côte d'Ivoire's Sebastian Haller scored the winning goal at the AFCON2023 Final
Côte d'Ivoire's Sebastian Haller scored the winning goal at the AFCON2023 Final, beating Nigerian keeper Stanley Nwabali. Photo credit: Muloongo Muchelemba for ONGOLO

Was the experience worth the struggle? When I was leaving Abidjan, I vowed never to attend AFCON again. However, after processing my emotions, I concluded that the positive experiences had outweighed the negative. The memories from those 10 days in Côte d'Ivoire are so unique. I will remember them for the rest of my life. Would I consider attending AFCON again? Only under three conditions.

First condition: I will attend the tournament when the home country is unlikely to win. Even though I was happy for Côte d’Ivoire that they got their fairytale ending, many of the issues we faced were because the home team was in play. That is one of the reasons why I will probably skip AFCON2025 in Morocco.

Second condition: I will only attend AFCON in a country with a well-developed tourism sector and transportation network. Fans need things to do during the 2-3 days between matches and Côte d’Ivoire didn’t offer much (my next blog post). This will NOT be an issue for Morocco and it certainly won’t be an issue for AFCON 2027, which will be hosted by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. I am definitely going for that. I wouldn't have stressed about tickets if I had the beaches of Zanzibar or Masai Mara as an alternative.

Third condition: I will go when I can do the VIP hospitality package. Hustling for tickets, walking to the stadium because I don’t have vehicle clearance and begging for lifts after the match to avoid walking 5km to the zone for non-VIPs is too much stress. I clearly have my work cut out over the next three years.

AFCON 2027?

I am hopeful that AFCON2027 will put the ghosts of AFCON2023 to rest. See you in East Africa!