By Victor Okoye, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
The Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is perhaps Africa’s most prestigious sports competition.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the 2023 AFCON, a month-long event holding from Jan. 13 to Feb. 11 is currently taking place in Cote d’Ivoire.
A lot of people from across the continent are following the tournament closely, sitting close to their television sets and talking about it on social media.
The host nation spent over one billion dollars to build four new stadiums along with roads and hospitals for the competition.
Some football’s most famous players are participating, and it is winter in Europe, so they arr not splitting attention with any other contest.
Also, the winner’s prize money was increased to 40 per cent higher than their predecessor’s — a new record.
However, in spite of all these, low turnouts and attendance rates at stadiums have been a recurring theme across all AFCON editions.
With the 34th edition of the competition ongoing in Cote d’Ivoire, it is quite evident that this phenomenon would continue to rare its ugly head.
On the opening day of the tournament, thousands of supporters flooded the streets of Abidjan to the town of Ebimpé which caused a huge traffic as vehicles found it difficult to access the stadium
The stadiums, where all the actions was happening, was mostly empty, and this is not the first time this scenario has been playing out.
For instance, only 8,500 people attended the game between Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea on Sunday, this is a 60,012-capacity stadium; barely 14 per cent of the stadium capacity
Previous tournaments in Ghana, Angola, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Cameroon had similar stories.
Some matches, especially those involving Senegal, Mali, Benin, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire, turn out livelier than others, owing largely to organised supporters’ groups, usually including bands which play throughout the games.
But these groups don’t come for free; Federations, governments, or sponsors often bankroll these 500-1,500-strong performers to show up at games.
Meanwhile, regular citizens, who have no incentives other than having a good time are hardly present.
The reasons for this phenomenon ranges from infrastructural issues to financial, political and socio-cultural.
One of the major factors is the economic hardship currently prevalent in Africa and the world at large.
Football tournaments are one of the most popular methods of attracting tourists. This is why countries compete for the right to host the World Cup.
But these empty seats show how much the continent misses out on intra-African tourism.
Getting to AFCON, for instance, it is too difficult or expensive for many Africans.
Officially, match tickets alone cost 5,000 FCFA (about eight dollars) for Category three, 10,000 FCFA (about 16 dollars) for Category two and 15,000 FCFA (about 24 dollars).
The prices go up as the competition progresses. These prices cut out at least 85 per cent of Africans who live on less than 5.50 dollars daily.
Most participating countries are also battling high inflation and currency devaluation, so their middle class is depleting.
Nigeria, for instance, just had its worst year for the naira in 2023, and inflation is now near 28.9 per cent as at December 2023 according a National Bureau of Statistics report.
Ghana’s inflation also went as high as 43 per cent in 2023.
Egyptian authorities have implemented three sharp devaluations of the currency since early 2022.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted Equatorial Guinea to fall back into a recession in 2023.
Also, the intra-African commute is burdensome.
Flying from Berlin, the capital of Germany, to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, might cost you around 150 dollars for a direct flight lasting three hours.
Meanwhile, travelling a similar distance between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, could cost between 500 dollars and 850 dollars, often involving at least one layover and taking as much as 20 hours.
A flight from London to Warsaw, which spans about two hours 15 minutes for a non-stop flight, costs 30 pounds.
But if a Nigerian wanted to travel to Cote d’Ivoire for the tournament, he or she would spend 945 pounds (approximately N 1.1 million) on a 1 hour 40 mins non-stop flight
Taxes, statutory charges and levies, high jet fuel costs, airport taxes, and ground handling fees are some of the reasons airfare costs are so expensive.
Africa-based airlines struggle with economies of scale because there’s not enough demand for intra-African travel.
Little demand is leading to high prices and vice versa. On the other hand, patriotism is approaching zero because of the state of the nations.
Nigerian Currency (Naira) which in recent times facing serious devaluation is been exchanged for an official rate of 1 dollar to N960, is now been subjected to another test in Ivory Coast at the ongoing AFCON.
My colleague and I are Nigerian journalists covering the continental showpiece in Abidjan.
Indeed, it has not been easy as we have continued to cry out on the impact of the naira devaluation in Ivory Coast which has affected their initial budget and led to a high cost of living for us, barely three days after the event kicked off.
Another journalist, David Oku from Umuahia, complained of how bad the situation has been degrading by the day.
“We were initially exchanging N100,000 for CFA 50,000 but now it has dropped to CFA 44,000,” Oku told NAN.
“Also, by the time you begin to factor in the cost of transportation and feeding, you discover that you necessarily need more naira to enable you to keep going in Cote d’Ivoire”, he said.
Also, worthy of note is the high cost of accommodation in Abidjan, which has rendered some of our colleagues homeless, as the lowest cost for a space is N30,000 (CFA 15,000) per night in Abidjan.
While doing our job diligently at the event, journalists now think of where to sleep in the night as this happens to be a serious issue that has been affected by the naira devaluation in recent times.
Another journalist, Jennifer Okoye from Lagos said that the issue of accommodation, had also exposed colleagues to hoodlums who take advantage of the situation to rob them of their valuables, including cameras, laptops, ipads, phones and other media gadgets needed to enable them do their job.
Indeed, I, have been a victim as I was robbed of almost all my valuables on arrival in Abidjan and left to survive under very harsh living conditions.
As the AFCON enters the knockout stages this weekend, we will have to live with the fact that the stadiums may become even more scantier without the hosts who are on the brink of crashing out early at the group stage.
It is, therefore, time to rethink how to engage with the fans of African football.
We must think about ways to keep ticket prices within the reach of locals in order to ensure their buy-in and sustained the interest in a competition like the AFCON.
Turning this around would require a huge shift in the continent’s infrastructure like railway networks and sub-stations as well as quality of life, which is unlikely in the near future.
However, the reduction of flight and match ticket prices is one of the greatest factors to consider, which could see a well attended, more vibrant and lively AFCON in subsequent editions.(www.nannews.ng) (NANFeatures)