The much-anticipated tournament kicked off with a spectacular opening ceremony on Saturday night in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Cote d’Ivoire, where the spotlight is on the continent’s premier football talents.
The event, spanning a month, will witness the participation of 24 national teams vying for glory at six stadiums across five cities as they seek to claim the AFCON title.
Many Chinese football fans, wearing orange, white and green T-shirts — colors of the national flag of Cote d’Ivoire — joined passionate crowds singing and dancing to afrobeat and rap. Together with hundreds of thousands of Chinese people living in Africa, they share the joy and pride of the locals about the grand event.
Beyond the realm of sports, the tournament is viewed as a golden opportunity to stimulate the local economy, foster international cooperation, and showcase African culture on a global stage. As the country sets the stage for this grand event, all eyes are on the unfolding drama and excitement that AFCON 2023 promises to deliver.
Glory of African Football
In the first match, Cote d’Ivoire secured a 2-0 victory over Guinea-Bissau at the Alassane Ouattara stadium, following an opening celebration of African culture with the participation of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, African football chief Patrice Motsepe, and Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara, who proudly declared his country "a land of football."
In the last few decades, African football has made remarkable progress, with notable achievements on the global stage. Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana made their mark by reaching the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup, while Morocco’s remarkable journey led them to the semifinals of the 2022 tournament.
The influence of African players worldwide is growing, with many top clubs boasting talents from the continent in their ranks. Icons like Liverpool’s "Egyptian King" Mohamed Salah, West Ham’s dynamic Ghana midfielder Mohammed Kudus and Stuttgart’s Guinea striker Serhou Guirassy have become integral to the success of their respective teams.
Those players, many of whom honed their skills on grassless pitches or sandy beaches during their childhood, now serve as inspirational figures for youth across Africa.
"This is fantastic," said Serges Deble, a player from Cote d’Ivoire. "After everything we have been through, AFCON marks good progression for development in our country and the whole of Africa." Born in Abidjan and embarking on his football journey at the age of 16, Deble has represented his country at U20 and U23 levels and has pursued his profession in both Europe and Asia. He spent two years playing for China’s Meizhou Hakka, which he called "a fantastic memory."
Commenting on the progress in the football industry in Africa, he said, "Things are turning better for African football players." However, he added, there is still room for increased investment to fortify the industry across the continent, and China is a natural partner in this regard.
"China already started. Not only in football but in many markets, and many people want to work with China. Our government is working closely with China. It is good collaboration. Maybe after football, I will go to China to make my business," Deble said.
Cooperation between China and Africa in the football industry dates back more than a decade. Chinese companies assisted African countries in constructing stadiums used for AFCON 2012, 2017 and 2021. This year, China has helped Cote d’Ivoire build key infrastructure to facilitate the matches.
The president of Cote d’Ivoire’s Football Federation, Idriss Diallo, said that the country has committed investments in infrastructure linked to the competition, including the construction of four new stadiums, road improvements, as well as the renovation of hospitals and airports. Among these, the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, situated in Ebimpe on the outskirts of Abidjan, stands as a long-term legacy for the nation.
The stadium, with a seating capacity of 60,000, is scheduled to host the opening and final matches of AFCON 2023. Completed by the Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) and handed over to the local government in 2020, this stadium is now recognized as one of the most modern in Africa. Complemented by ancillary facilities like Olympic City, it is part of a broader plan to develop the northern outskirts of Abidjan.
Even before the tournament’s opening, the stadium had become a point of interest for football fans. Taxi driver Kone Adama said, "I am as busy as a bee these two weeks. I have been taking fans in various jerseys from the airport, and they always want to make a stop first at the national stadium."
When President Alassane Ouattara attended the stadium’s inauguration in October 2020, he recalled that the first president of the country, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, planned to build an Olympic city in Epimbe. More than 40 years later, the completion of the stadium fulfilled the wishes of several generations of leaders and tens of millions of people in Cote d’Ivoire, Ouattara said.
In addition to the Alassane Ouattara Stadium, Chinese companies have also constructed two additional arenas and several key roads, addressing the potential congestion on Abidjan’s thoroughfares as tens of thousands of football enthusiasts are coming to the country for the tournament.
Moreover, the Chinese technological firm TECNO, also the official sponsor of the tournament, has embarked on a campaign to renovate 100 football fields in underprivileged communities across 12 African countries to make football accessible to everyone and unleash the potential of young football enthusiasts.
"It is all about empowering African children in the sports sector by providing them the joy of playing on lush fields," said Guo Lei, TECNO’s general manager.
The connection between China and Africa, as exemplified in AFCON 2023, is part of broader ties nurtured by generations on both sides.
Lu Lu, the manager of BCEG’s Cote d’Ivoire branch, said she was impressed by the China-Africa friendship and felt "the warmth of the African people toward the Chinese" while working in several African countries since 2010.
In Togo, local patients expressed their gratitude by sending fruits to Chinese doctors, while in Mali, appreciation for Chinese assistance in constructing a university was shown as locals filled pick-up trucks with oranges, delivering them to Chinese workers on the construction site. Even during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, African businessmen extended their support by donating money at the Chinese embassies, she recalled.
"People often say that with my experiences, I am considered an African now and should stay on the continent forever," Lu said.
Her connection to Africa is deeply rooted and shaped by her father’s experiences. As a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, Lu’s father arrived in Gabon in 1995 as part of a cooperative agreement between the governments of the two countries. He was among the medical staff dedicated to advancing healthcare in Africa over the past 60 years.
Since the deployment of the first Chinese medical team to Algeria in 1963, China has sent 30,000 medical personnel to 76 countries and regions across five continents, with a primary focus on Africa, providing 290 million diagnoses and treatments for local communities.
Over the past decades, China-Africa cooperation, with joint efforts, has yielded fruitful results. The two sides have built railways, highways, airports and seaports, improving connectivity both within the continent and with the rest of the world. They have also constructed renewable energy power plants, providing local populations with access to electricity without causing environmental damage.
After AFCON 2023 kicked off on Saturday, people living in remote areas in Cote d’Ivoire and other African countries were able to watch the matches at home, thanks to broadcast services provided by StarTimes, a Chinese digital TV operator. The satellite TV project was announced at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since then, the project has helped nearly 10,000 villages in more than 20 African countries receive digital TV signals.
The ninth forum is expected to be held in China later this year, during which Chinese and African leaders will discuss new initiatives to bring benefits to people on both sides.
Reflecting on China-Africa cooperation, Deble said "I know the Chinese people are here to help, not only in football but in so many industries ... We are together on the path to development."
"Prior to our arrival in Africa, our predecessors had dedicated their lives to fostering China-Africa friendship, and we deeply admire their accomplishments. Their efforts have left an invaluable legacy that serves as both inspiration and guidance for our mission today," Lu said.