China, Saudi Arabia ‘stadium diplomacy’


China’s and Saudi Arabia’s influence in African Stadiums Image: @Africansoccerup (X)

When the Africa Cup of Nations begins on January 13th, the opening match between Guinea Bissau (country in West Africa) and the hosts, Ivory Coast (country in West Africa), will be played at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan (City in Ivory Coast). The state-of-the-art venue is one of six stadiums being used during the football tournament.

‘THE CONVERSATION’ stated that at a ceremony to mark the beginning of its construction in 2016, the former Prime Minister of Ivory Coast, Daniel Kablan Duncan, was accompanied by several Chinese Embassy officials based in the country.

The Africa Cup of Nations, sometimes referred to as the TotalEnergies Africa Cup of Nations for sponsorship reasons, or simply AFCON or CAN, is the main international men’s association football competition in Africa. It is sanctioned by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and was first held in 1957.

The 2023 African Cup of Nations, known for short as the 2023 AFCON or CAN 2023 and for sponsorship purposes as the TotalEnergies 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, is scheduled to be the 34th edition of the biennial African association football tournament organized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). It will be hosted by Ivory Coast for the second time and the first since 1984. It will be held from January 13th-February 11th, 2024. It was postponed to 2024 due to the adverse Summer weather concerns in Ivory Coast.

The 60,012-capacity Alassane Ouattara Stadium, commonly known as the Olympic Stadium of Ebimpé and formerly as the National Stadium of the Ivory Coast, is a multipurpose stadium in Ebimpé and Anyama in Northern Abidjan. It opened in the year 2020.

6th of October City (Egypt)-based the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is the administrative and controlling body for association football, beach soccer and futsal in Africa.

‘THE CONVERSATION’ further stated that the presence of the Chinese Embassy officials’ way back in 2016 was no surprise. After all, the stadium was designed by the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and built by the Beijing Construction Engineering Group. Both of these are Chinese State entities.

China was heavily involved in building other tournament venues too. In San-Pédro (Ivory Coast), the 20,000-capacity Laurent Pokou Stadium was built by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (again, State-owned). And the China National Building Material group served as the General Contractor of the 20,000-capacity Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium in Korhogo, Ivory Coast.

All of this is part of a long-term policy of “stadium diplomacy” which China has been deploying across the continent.

For instance, when Gabon (country in Central Africa) co-hosted (with Equatorial Guinea [country in Central Africa]) the Cup of Nations in 2012, China was involved in building both of its stadiums. Five years later, when Gabon hosted the tournament again, China built another two.

Gabon now sends around 15 percent of its exports – mostly crude petroleum and manganese – to China.

And just as construction of the Alassane Ouattara Stadium got underway, Ivory Coast’s President – who happens to be named Alassane Ouattara – visited Beijing (China) to finalize a strategic cooperative partnership.

By 2020, China had invested US$1.5 billion (£1.2 billion) in Ivory Coast. Now the African nation exports US$700 million worth of natural resources and goods to China, up from US$100 million in 2016.

The Chinese stadium diplomacy, which also exists in countries including Angola (country in Central Africa), Equatorial Guinea, Mali (Country in West Africa), and Cameroon (country in Central Africa), is officially framed as being mutually beneficial.

For China, the benefits are clear. Stadium diplomacy enables the country to extend its sphere of influence in Africa. At the same time, Africa has become a source of raw materials that help sustain China’s economic growth and global dominance in sectors such as battery manufacturing and telecommunications.

A New Player

But China has a strategic rival. Saudi Arabia also wants a piece of the football diplomacy action.

The Gulf powerhouse is charging ahead with its own economic transformation and development, part of which involves investing hundreds of millions of dollars in sport. And at the heart of Saudi plans is the intention to position itself as an “Afro-Eurasian” hub of international football.

At one stage in 2023, it appeared as though the Kingdom would bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup™ in conjunction with Egypt and Greece. As part of the proposed arrangement, Saudi Arabia was reportedly offering to build new stadiums in each of its partner countries.

In the end, Morocco, Spain and Portugal will be hosting that event, and Saudi Arabia is now set to host the 2034 competition instead. But that too will probably involve some collaboration with Egypt, as NEOM, the US$500 billion mega-City Saudi Arabia is building, would probably form part of its hosting plans.

In other developments, Saudi Arabia has become the main sponsor of the African Football League (AFL). And the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has struck a deal with the Mauritanian Football Association to develop infrastructure and train referees, as part of efforts to boost relations between the two nations.

The African Football League, otherwise known as the AFL, is an annual continental club football competition run by the CAF that kicked off in October 2023. It was announced on November 28th, 2019 by Gianni Infantino, President of FIFA.

Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)-based the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) is the football governing body of Saudi Arabia. Founded in 1956, its responsibilities include administration of club competitions and national teams. The founder of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation is Prince Abdullah bin Faisal Al Saud.

Ksar (Mauritania)-based the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is the governing body of football in Mauritania (country in Africa). It was founded in 1961, affiliated to FIFA in 1970 and to CAF in 1976. It organizes the national football league and the national team.

Another Gulf nation, Qatar, has set out a template for engagement with Africa. Having hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup™, it decided to fund football projects in Rwanda (country in East Africa), while the State-owned Qatar Airways made a bid to acquire significant stakes in both Air Rwanda and Kigali’s (capital of Rwanda) new international airport.

Africa has clearly become a source of great interest to some wealthy countries looking for places to spread influence and investment. The Africa Cup of Nations is a prime example of this – with the diplomatic prizes at stake being as valuable as any of the fixtures being played in China’s new stadiums around Ivory Coast.

AFCON Stadia

‘Football Ground Guide’ stated that six football grounds make up the list of AFCON stadiums for the 2023 African Cup of Nations to be hosted by Ivory Coast in January 2024.

The West African country’s capital, Abidjan, is home to two of the half-dozen stadiums, with the others in Bouaké, Korhogo, San-Pédro (Cities in Ivory Coast), and Yamoussoukro (political capital of Ivory Coast).

‘Football Ground Guide’ further stated that the Africa Cup of Nations is the continent’s biggest football tournament. Fifty-two matches will be hosted in Ivory Coast across January and February 2024.

AFCON 2023: Which Stadiums Will Be Used in Ivory Coast?

  • Alassane Ouattara Stadium, Abidjan (60,000)

By far the largest stadium in Ivory Coast, the Alassane Ouattara Stadium (also known as the National Stadium or Olympic Stadium), opened in 2020 and is named after the country’s President, Alassane Ouattara.

Like many African new-built stadiums, Ivory Coast’s national arena was constructed with the help of the country’s partnership with China. Chinese brands and companies were heavily involved in the building and the design was prepared by the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. The Alassane Ouattara Stadium was built at a cost of around £200m.

  • Houphouët-Boigny Stadium, Abidjan (50,000)

Nicknamed La Félicia, the Felix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium hosts football, rugby union and athletics in Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast. It used to be the country’s national stadium and is named after the first-ever Ivory Coast President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

Le Félicia is home to the Ivorian professional football club ASEC Abidjan. It was built in 1964 in preparation for the ‘Games of Abidjan’ and has undergone several renovations, most notably in 2009 and 2017.

Two fatal stampedes have occurred here in 2009 and 2013. A total of 80 people died in the two events, one of which was a football match between Ivory Coast and Malawi (country in East Africa), the other came during a New Year’s Eve fireworks display.

  • Stade de Paix, Bouaké (40,000)

Located in the central City of Bouaké, the second-largest in Ivory Coast, the Stade de Paix was constructed for AFCON 1984 and is undergoing renovation to gear up for AFCON 2023, overseen by Mota-Engil, a Portuguese construction company.

The Stade de Paix hosted seven games during the Africa Cup of Nations in 1984, including the third-place match.

The stadium gained infamy through the testimonies of Bouaké residents who alleged that it was used as an execution site by the New Forces during the country’s Civil War.

In 2007, the stadium hosted a match of enormous significance, with the Ivory Coast vs. Madagascar (country in East Africa) fixture being part of the Ouagadougou Agreement to establish peace in the country. This defines the stadium’s names: Stadium of the Peace.

The Stade de Paix now serves as the home ground for three major clubs: The ASC Bouaké, Alliance Bouaké and Bouaké FC. The City has a population of 740,000.

A major renovation of the facility was undertaken in 2007 and a further renovation from 2018-2020 and in 2023. The stadium is now the second-largest in the country with the capacity increased from 25,000 to 40,000 and the plans have involved removing the athletics track and adding a roof.

  • Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium, Korhogo (20,000)

Construction began on the Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium in 2018 keeping in mind the Africa Cup of Nations. It has a capacity of 20,000 and is another stadium to benefit from Chinese investment into Africa, with the China National Building Material acting as the General Contractor.

The stadium is owned by the Ivory Coast Government and is situated in Korhogo, in the North of the country. Korhogo is the fourth-largest City in Ivory Coast and the largest in the North.

It is named after a former Prime Minister, Amado Gon Coulibaly, who hailed from the North of the country.

Construction was completed in the Summer of 2023, later than anticipated but well in time for AFCON 2023 being held in January 2024. It looks fantastic.

  • Laurent Pokou Stadium, San-Pédro (20,000)

Sitting in the Southwestern City of San-Pédro, the Laurent Pokou Stadium was constructed for AFCON 2023, with building work beginning in September 2018 and being completed exactly five years later.

The first match at the Laurent Pokou Stadium was between the Ivory Coast national team and Lesotho (country in Southern Africa). The home side won 1-0 in the AFCON 2023 qualifier.

Built by the China Civil Engineering Construction Company, the Laurent Pokou Stadium is owned by the Ivory Coast Government and has a capacity to accommodate 20,000 spectators.

The ground is a fantastic addition to the sporting community in the South of the country. It is named in honor of the iconic Ivorian striker, Laurent Pokou, who represented the national team from 1967 until 1980, scoring 21 goals in 30 games. He was twice the top goal scorer at AFCON and only Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o has scored more goals in total at the Africa Cup of Nations.

  • Charles Konan Banny Stadium, Yamoussoukro (20,000)

Opened in June 2022, the Charles Konan Banny Stadium is located in Yamoussoukro (240 km off Abidjan) and was built at a cost of around £60 million.

The stadium was completed in 2021 but its inauguration was delayed due to security concerns. As a result, the Ivory Coast national team did not play here until June 2022 when they beat Zambia 2-1 in the inaugural match.

The ground is named after the country’s former Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, who passed away due to COVID-19 at the age of 78. It will serve as home to The Gambia’s (country in West Africa) group matches in AFCON 2023.

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