Football fans in Ivory Coast partied late into the night after The Elephants lifted the Africa Cup of Nations title on Sunday, ending a 23-year drought with a win over Ghana in a nailbiting penalty shootout.
In the commercial capital Abidjan, groups of supporters giddy with victory gathered on street corners to hail passing cars, many of which were draped in the national flag.
“The curse is finally over! The Ivorians are the kings of Africa tonight,” Alexandre, a student who watched the game with hundreds of others on a giant screen at Felix Houphouët-Boigny University, said triumphantly.
Goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who scored the decisive goal to clinch a 9-8 victory on penalties after the final ended 0-0 despite extra time, was the hero of the night.
“History has repeated itself,” said Moussa, a young supporter, who had painted his cheeks in the orange, green and white of the Ivorian flag, referring to the country’s last Africa Cup win in 1992 — also in a final against Ghana that ended in a penalty shootout.
“Now we have a second star on our jersey. It’s one of the best days of my life,” he said, brimming with delight.
A nervy game ended in an explosion of joy across the country after keeper Barry, nicknamed “Coppa”, drove home the winning shot after saving a spot-kick from his Ghanaian counterpart Razak Braimah.
“Coppa! Coppa!,” supporters at the university in Abidjan chanted as Barry later held up the trophy in the in the Equatorial Guinea city of Bata.
“We have won the World Cup,” said Adi, a smiling 11-year-old girl who stood barefoot outside a bar in Abidjan, apparently confusing tournaments.
Others held up the victory as a symbol of unity in a country scarred by years of conflict.
“For years we wept but we deserve this Cup. Today we are all behind this team,” Ahmed, another fan in Abidjan, said.
– Ivory Coast ‘reconciled’ –
National unity had been an elusive ideal for most of the past decade.
The world’s biggest cocoa producer was divided between 2003 and 2011 between a rebel-held north and a south controlled by forces loyal to ex-president Laurent Gbagbo.
The violence peaked after a disputed presidential poll in late 2010. After four months of fighting in which 3,000 people were killed, forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally-recognised winner, ousted Gbagbo.
Throughout the conflict years The Elephants were held up a symbol of unity — but the team’s failure to achieve glory, despite having Chelsea legend Didier Drogba in the squad for 12 years until 2014, gave the country little cause for celebration.
“Ivory Coast has been reconciled tonight. We don’t need politicians to reconcile us. The Elephants did it!,” said Mamadou Soro, a teaching inspector in the central city of Bouake, where ecstatic supporters, some stripped to the waist, celebrated in the midst of columns of tooting motorbikes.
Ouattara’s administration attempted to reap dividends from the win, which comes nine months before the country returns to the polls.
Within minutes of the final whistle his Rally of the Republicans party rushed out a statement heaping praise on the champions’ “brilliance”.
In its scramble to have its say, the party got a key detail wrong — situating the final in Guinea Bissau instead of Equatorial Guinea.
“We have a wonderful team and an exceptional manager. This team was consistent and united. Bravo to them!,” Ouattara said on national television.
The party continues Monday, when the newly-crowned kings of African football return to a hero’s welcome at the national stadium in Abidjan.