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In Ivory Coast, the slow emergence of professional women’s football

Every training session, the same ritual. The players of the Atletico Football Club of Abidjan (AFCA) arrive a little before 9 a.m. on the municipal field of Ebimpé, the town north of Abidjan which hosts the largest stadium in the country and will be the theater on Sunday February 11 of a match awaited by an entire nation: Ivory Coast-Nigeria in the final of the African Cup of Nations (CAN). Due to a lack of changing rooms, they change hastily at the edge of the pitch. Plastic chairs act as hangers. Once they have put on their bright orange swimsuits, they clean the space and then perform a collective prayer.

“They say that the African player is all-terrain… but there are still limits”, quips AFCA coach Anne-Marie Mayaky, noting the state of the ground. Behind her, the contours of the Alassane-Ouattara stadium, inaugurated in 2020, can be seen. “Let’s hope that the stadiums built for the tournament will be used by local clubs… and that we won’t forget the girls,” whispers the trainer between two instructions.

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For the moment, it is on a sparse turf, a mixture of grass, sand and rubbish of all kinds that Anne-Marie Mayaky is helping her players progress. But the coach does not despair of improving the conditions of the squad, proud to lead the double champions of Côte d’Ivoire. A reason for joy in the same way as the recent professionalization of the latter within the Women’s Ligue 1. With ASEC Mimosas, AFCA is one of the rare Ivorian clubs to pay salaries to female footballers.

In this football-mad country, where national team players are on the verge of becoming heroes, women’s football arouses little interest. Little publicized and less funded, it remains behind. Only a handful of Ivorian players benefit from a professional contract, most often obtained in clubs abroad. Those who compete in national competitions must for the most part settle for amateur status.

“Lack of recognition” of the federation

“Unlike men’s football, there are very few pros among the women’s players. We remain on an amateur operation, with structures in very poor condition. The construction site is colossal », Notes Ludovic Batelli, technical director within the Ivorian Football Federation (FIF). In September 2022, barely arriving from France, he led the launch of the Women’s Ligue 1.

If the situation of the players is far from perfect, it remains much better than that of their colleagues. Thus, when the FIF finances the men’s Ligue 1 annually to the tune of 100 million CFA francs (150,000 euros), it spends ten times less for the women’s championship. Due to a lack of available grounds, the women’s championship matches are played at 10 a.m. in sparsely filled stadiums. In the absence of academies dedicated to the training of young girls, they train with boys, while waiting to be old enough to join a women’s team.

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In 2022, the FIF set the monthly minimum salary for Ligue 1 footballers at 160,000 CFA francs (around 240 euros). For players in the women’s championship, only a daily bonus of 2,000 CFA francs was made compulsory, possible salary being left to the discretion of the clubs. “We won the championship twice but we received neither medal nor prize money,” notes with bitterness Lynda Gauzé. More than money, it is ” lack of recognition “ of the FIF for the work they have provided during these last two seasons which is difficult for the central defender of the AFCA.

Joining the national team is not synonymous with better conditions either. “We must come with our own pair of gloves, we receive no bonus for training, only 5,000 CFA francs for transport”, relates the goalkeeper of the Elephants, Cynthia Djohoré. After more than fifteen years of career, the dean of Atletico believes that the resources allocated to women’s football are “always so “sucky””like the rusty posts that serve as a cage.

Develop sport in schools

For each victory, the Elephants receive a bonus of 500,000 CFA francs (around 760 euros). In the event of defeat, they only leave with the 10,000 CFA francs provided for their transport. In this context, victories are more than just prestige. Especially since “ it is not with the 100,000 CFA francs per month that the club pays me that I can pay my bills and feed my daughter,” asserts the caretaker, obliged to share her rent of 70,000 CFA francs with her sister.

Added to these material obstacles is the poor image of women’s football. “In Ivorian society, football continues to be perceived as the preserve of men. Some parents don’t let their daughters play, for fear of seeing them become virile or even lesbian”, explains Marcel Ouattara, president of Mousso Foot, an NGO which promotes women’s football. Before keeping the national cages and those of Atletico d’Abidjan, Cynthia Djohoré says that she played “in secret”.

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On Didier Drogba’s land, the acceleration of the development of women’s football could come from the Confederation of African Football (CAF). To hope to compete in continental competitions, since July 2023 all clubs must obtain a CAF license subject to compliance with strict criteria. Among them, the obligation to have a women’s section and to have athletes sign contracts. Even if, for the moment, the CAF license mainly leads clubs to sign women as amateurs, it sets a first milestone. “The enthusiasm for women’s football is there, as is the talent. But it is not well positioned. These CAF obligations could shake things up”believes Ludovic Batelli.

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At the same time, the technical director of the FIF is working to develop sport in schools through the creation of “elite sports” classes for boys and girls in middle school. He also wants to reestablish the women’s under-20 team (U-20) and launch the under-17 team (U-17). In the long term, he hopes to get closer to the level of players in Ghana, Morocco or South Africa. “ In these countries, players benefit from more resources and attention. This is reflected in their performances”he emphasizes.

In Ebimpé, the training session for the AFCA players is coming to an end. Without storage space, the equipment goes back to the club manager. Before climbing into the gbaka (collective minibus), Cynthia Djohoré thinks in the conditional: “If only the FIF gave us half the means and consideration that it gives to men, we would surely have already brought home an international trophy. » The boys will try to hang a third star on the Ivory Coast men’s and women’s jerseys on Sunday.

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