The Plateau area of Abidjan in Ivory Coast is undulating like San Francisco, but the peeling, sun-bleached tower blocks and the connection with water might make you think you are on the promenade in Havana.
There is also brutalist architecture and five-star hotels. It is the city’s business district and this is where each of the eight teams competing in Group A and B of AFCON are stationed.
On Sunday morning at the Pullman, the hotel Nigeria and Ghana are sharing, the mood was surprisingly buoyant.
Both nations are under huge pressure and some commentators from the continent are claiming it would not surprise them if they exited the tournament before the knock-out stages.
Nigeria has some of the best centre-forwards on the planet, but there is a lack of partnerships further back.
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Some of the players think that Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro is too fussy and overthinks his plans, rather than just letting the team play.
Meanwhile, confidence in Ghana has arguably never been so low. The country’s federation is blamed for failing to create an infrastructure that produces the sort of quality it has in the past and it has been suggested that Ghana’s hopes rest entirely on the output of the West Ham United forward Mohammed Kudus.
Later in the night, Ghanaian sources suggested manager Chris Hughton was attacked in the Pullman after the country’s defeat to Cape Verde. Allegedly, only the intervention of government diplomats prevented the situation from ending badly.
Many of the rooms in the Pullman overlook Abidjan’s Ebrie lagoon, where the algae and mangroves shimmer at sunset.
Perhaps this had helped ease some tension earlier in the day before a ball was kicked. As the Nigerians set off for a slog of a draw with Equatorial Guinea (who are staying at the Movenpick just around the corner) in choking afternoon humidity, it was to the tune of African beats, with the captain Ahmed Musa running a playlist from his boombox.
The security operation in the place where the Egyptian national team were staying, a 10-minute walk away, was more stringent, with the road in front of the Tiama Hotel shut off for traffic by the national police, while the local gendarmerie patrolled inside, with hotel staff insisting on ID from anyone who wanted to take the lift to the highest floors.
The atmosphere was not quite as relaxed as it might otherwise be. There was an obvious reason for this caution. Across the Boulevard de la Republique is the renovated Felix Houphouet Boigny stadium, where a few hours later, Egypt entered the competition with a frustrating 2-2 draw against Mozambique, only secured in injury time following a contentiously awarded penalty kick from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
Strictly speaking, The Athletic wasn’t meant to be here, sitting in the lobby as the Egyptian players congregated four hours ahead of kick-off, playing table football.
Salah set himself slightly aside from this amusement, as he waited to retreat to the dining room at the accompanying Restaurant l’Ambassadeur for a 20-minute team meeting hosted by another Portuguese coach, Rui Vitoria.
Salah is clearly the leader of this group, signalling to his teammates, in his shower slippers, that it was time to get a move on as it turned 1pm.
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Twenty-four hours earlier, he had been absent from the pre-match press conference at the Palais de la Culture, across the lagoon in Treichville, where Vitoria gave long, impressive answers to questions — around 80 per cent of which related in some way to Salah, the team’s captain (and the country’s first global superstar).
Egypt is one of those jobs where it can be beneficial to ride the expectation by ramping it up. “The entire team has only one goal,” Vitoria admitted on Saturday. “To be crowned champions.”
If that happens, it will arguably have greater historical implications for Salah than it will for the country he represents. While Egypt has seven AFCON titles, the most in the competition’s history, their most recent three (2006, 2008, and 2010) were won immediately before Salah’s international career took off in 2011.
This means he has inherited an expectation that he had nothing to do with. With Salah having been a losing finalist twice (2017, 2021), AFCON remains the one big hole in his glittering CV.
Though Salah is frequently considered the best player in Egypt’s history, Mohamed Aboutrika is thought of as the greatest. Not only was he the creative architect of two AFCON titles, but he transcended football because of his social conscience and political views during a period of immense upheaval in Egypt.
Salah is not thought of in the same way because he has played almost all of his career in Europe, at a time when fans across Egypt have been shut out from stadiums for longer than a decade because of a hangover from the Arab Spring, thus increasing the distance generally between footballers and those who watch it.
Egyptians have been more likely to see Salah on a billboard than on a pitch; he is the first Egyptian footballer to become a corporate machine, appealing to fans beyond the boundaries of the place he comes from.
Though his goals would lead Egypt to only its third World Cup appearance in 2018, AFCON might hold greater meaning in the country because it is a tournament Egypt can win and has won so many times.
Would delivering this trophy change the way people feel about him? Winners tend to be able to define the way they are remembered. Yet failing to win AFCON has not hindered the reputations of legends such as Didier Drogba and George Weah, who — it should be stressed — have come to represent something more given Drogba’s commitment to ending a civil war and Weah’s incursion into politics where he has become Liberia’s president.
It is just as interesting but largely under-discussed how the rest of Africa feels about Salah, a player whose civic actions have been handled in a much more discreet manner.
Elsewhere in Plateau, down by its southernmost tip, is the district’s mosque and, on Sunday morning, it was particularly quiet. This is not an area where many Abidjanis live but a few were about.
When asked which African player he liked the most, one man described Nigeria’s Victor Oshimen as “King of the continent.” He was a Christian but a Muslim in a garage forecourt filling up his car said there was only one answer. “Salah,” he said simply.
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Westerners tend to forget the vastness of Africa and all of the cultural alignments that exist here, including race. There is a huge question of Egyptian identity, with it sometimes being suggested it is Arab by culture but African by geography.
African critics suggest Egyptian governments haven’t always shown that the space below it on the map is a priority, while Sudan, just to the south, has more of a leg in Africa, bridging the gap with greater enthusiasm and confidence.
Though a new Nile dam development has led to increased cooperation with Ethiopia, Mirette Mabrouk from the Middle East Institute suggested in 2021 that there is some distance to go if Egypt is to convince the rest of Africa that it is not only interested in being seen as an entry point to the region when it benefits its own economic interests.
“You cannot be seen as a gateway to a continent that you are not fully part of, fully committed to and fully involved in,” she argued.
The billboards of Cairo might exclusively show Salah but the faces plastered most across Abidjan are Franck Kessie and Sebastien Haller.
It certainly has not felt like the country has been waiting for Salah to land, though his name was cheered loudest ahead of the game against Mozambique when the teams were read out.
It is difficult to know which nationalities reacted that way because Abidjan is home to people from all over West Africa.
The mood would change, however, as the game progressed and, with a shock on the cards, the crowd chanted for “MOZAMBIQUE! MOZAMBIQUE! MOZAMBIQUE!”
When Egypt were awarded their penalty following a VAR decision by the Mauritanian referee, there was fury, and as Salah clanked the subsequent opportunity off the post and in, there were jeers.
This was not the result anyone watching expected, given Mozambique had only appeared in one previous AFCON over the last 25 years.
Yet Salah will surely take confidence from Lionel Messi’s experience at the last World Cup when Argentina suffered an even greater humiliation in the opening game against Saudi Arabia before winning the whole thing.
Despite Messi being one of the greatest footballers in the history of the sport, future conversations about him would have been different had Argentina not reacted positively to that result.
Salah is fighting to ensure the avoidance of the same caveats.
(Top photo: Fareed Kotb/Anadolu via Getty Images)