A forgotten relic

Just two weeks on from Les Elephants greatest ever triumph, the Ivorian women’s national team is at its lowest point.

The Ebimpe municipal pitches where Athletico Abidjan trains. Credit Alasdair Howorth © 2024.

This weekend begins the third round of qualifiers for the Paris 2024 Olympics in women’s football, but Côte d’Ivoire will not be one of the eight teams vying for a spot. The reason for that is they could not afford the costs of playing the last round of matches.

On October 26, 2023, just 10 weeks out from hosting Africa’s biggest men’s tournament, the Ivorian Federation released a statement that the women’s team would not have the finances to play in qualifiers against Tunisia, citing a lack of funding from the Ivorian National Sports Office. It represents a dramatic fall from grace for the team that a decade ago came third at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations and qualified for the World Cup. Despite going on to finish bottom of their group in Canada in 2015, they narrowly lost to Thailand 3-2 and scored a famous goal against heavyweights Norway in a 3-1 loss.

But after that historic high, the national team has seen a drastic decline. In fact, since that World Cup appearance, the team has failed to qualify for any major competition. Since 2020, the team has only played eight matches. Six of those came in WAFCON qualifiers and the only friendlies that the team has played were against Morocco in 2022 and Algeria’s under-20 team in 2023, both matches funded entirely by their opponents. Despite spending over $1 billion on the Africa Cup of Nations, Côte d’Ivoire can’t fund one match for its women’s team.

The Ebimpe municipal pitches where Athletico Abidjan trains. Credit Alasdair Howorth © 2024.

“Here women’s football is really difficult. Our Federation doesn’t make any intervention financially,” says Lakoun Ouatarra, the president of Mousso Foot, an NGO that helps promote women’s football in Côte d’Ivoire. “It’s not enough to prepare the team [playing no friendlies]. Nigeria plays against Brazil, Cameroon plays against France but here, we don’t have friendly matches.”

It is a similar story at the club level. 

Abdul Olatunji, a Nigerian former footballer-turned businessman started Athletico Football Club d’Abidjan in 2017. In the last two seasons, Athletico Abidjan were crowned champions of the Ivorian Féminine Ligue 1. In November the team took part in the third edition of the CAF Women’s Champions League hosted in Côte d’Ivoire as a warmup competition for the AFCON. Despite their success, the team received very little help from the state or federation.

“Normally when you’re a champion you’re supposed to get trophy, medal, prizes,” he says. “It’s been two years and we’ve got nothing. Not even medals. Their focus is just on the men’s national team.”

Like the national team, club football has taken a back seat in the build-up and during the AFCON. Not only was the league paused during the competition, but the team could not even train. That’s because their training pitch, which is just two kilometers from the Stade Alassane Ouatarra where Les Elephants beat Nigeria in the final and became African champions, was co-opted during the tournament to be used as a fan zone. The team was forced to train on one-quarter of the sandy pitch that was not taken up by a stage or gazebos. With no access to locker rooms, the team had to use the fan tent to change before and after training.

Coach Anne Marie was recruited for the club having had experience in Cameroon, South Africa Madagascar, and Mauritius. Credit Alasdair Howorth © 2024.

Notwithstanding the challenges, the club and team have been remarkably successful. Having run a men’s club since 2005, Olatunji was told by a colleague that by 2024 FIFA would require all professional clubs to have both women’s and men’s teams. Realizing that he could get ahead of the curve, Olatunji formed the women’s team but it wasn’t an easy start.

“We went 1.5 years without playing in a league because the league had been stopped,” he says from the club’s offices, which previously housed his construction company. “We spent almost 18 months with only training and in 2018 we played our first match in the second division.”

After winning promotion in their first season the team had to wait almost two years before they could play their first First Division match after the COVID-19 pandemic brought football to a halt. But since they started playing again, the team has gone from strength to strength, winning back-to-back titles before playing in the third edition of the Champions League where they came bottom of their group (behind JKT Queens of Tanzania, Morocco’s Sporting Casablanca, and South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns).

When the team joined the Champions League, they were able to turn fully professional, the first team in the country to do so. But such is the lack of money in the women’s game that running the team is not financially sustainable despite the squad being on modest salaries at best.

“The business of the women’s team is like an NGO, you are sponsoring it without a return because the money we get from the federation is 10m CFA ($16,400) every year and we spend almost 40m CFA ($65,400) every year,” says Olatunji.

With the league having no broadcast deal—home teams are allowed to broadcast league matches, but only a handful stream games on Facebook—sponsors are virtually impossible to come by. Because Althetico Abidjan is a professional club now, they can make money from player sales to European clubs. However, this is not a reliable income stream because, with such little access to playing footage and the Ivorian international players failing to play at international competitions, they are not able to catch the eyes of the scouts.

Athletico Abidjan has purchased one team bus but it is only one of a few clubs that has access to transport and doesn’t rely on public transport to get to matches. Credit Alasdair Howorth © 2024.

While the Ivorian men’s team is full of superstars who earn millions playing abroad, the women’s game seems like a forgotten relic. But hope for the women’s game remains in Côte d’Ivoire. Thanks to CAF’s new regulations requiring men’s teams playing in CAF competitions to have a women’s team, Athletico Abidjan has been joined by ASEC Mimosas, Côte d’Ivoire’s most successful men’s club team (with eight alumni featuring in the AFCON winning side), in having a professional women’s team.

Interest in the women’s game exists in the country, as testified by the CAF Champions League which despite taking place in smaller cities, attracted modest crowds, particularly at Athletico Abidjan games. After releasing replica jerseys for the first time for the tournament, such was the demand that the club sold out in a couple of weeks. And it isn’t just Athletico Abidjan that attracts crowds, says Lakoun. “The teams are creating opportunities to create money. When a team like ASEC Mimosa plays, supporters will come and pay.”

So, regardless of the current lack of support from the top, there is still hope that rather than training in the shadow of Stade Alassane Ouattara, the women of Atheltico Abidjan will eventually play in the stadium itself.

Further Reading

Back in Bouaké

‘Les Éléphants’ quarterfinal match against Mali is happening in Cote d’Ivoire’s second largest city. Can the place once ravaged by war be a site of national redemption once again?