In Ivory Coast, the ASEC-Africa Sports derby, a historic rivalry just waiting to be reborn on the pitch

Two stadiums, two atmospheres

In Ivory Coast, the ASEC-Africa Sports derby, a historic rivalry just waiting to be reborn on the pitch

Two stadiums, two atmospheres. On December 17, the Green and Red of Africa Sports painfully defeated US Tchologo, 1 goal to 0, on the synthetic pitch of the Robert Champroux stadium in Abidjan. A victory which allows them to be at the top of Ivorian Ligue 2 at mid-season. Two days later, in the grounds of the Félix-Houphouët-Boigny stadium in Abidjan, freshly renovated in anticipation of the CAN which will begin on January 13, the ASEC (Sports Association of Commercial Employees) beat Mimosas 3-0 the Botswanans of Jwaneng Galaxy FC as part of the 4th day of the African Champions League, synonymous with qualification for the quarter-finals of the competition. Two performances which sum up the gap which today separates the two most successful teams in the country, whose rivalry has animated Ivorian football for decades.

“But does the rivalry still exist? ", asks Pierre Mariotti, the French coach of "Africa" ​​for two seasons, while "ASEC", 29 times champion of Côte d'Ivoire, and Africa Sports, 18 titles in its purse, no longer play in the same division. The big 7-1 victory for the Yellow and Black over Africa in women's football in November and the digs from supporters on social networks reminded us that the rivalry between the two badges is not over. “Among the women, the stands were full,” underlines Jean-Jacques Dadié, the secretary general of Africa. But the derby in men's football is missing in Ivorian football. »

“It’s a rivalry to the death, it’s never going to end, it’s impossible,” laughs former goalkeeper Alain Gouaméné, who played and coached in both clubs. On the men's side, the two teams have not met in an official match for four years. Africa supporters do not fail to point out that the Green and Red won 1-0, during a season interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The two teams then met again in a friendly match during the inauguration of the Alassane Ouattara stadium in Ebimpé in October 2020. ASEC then won 2-0. During the 2020-2021 season, after the peak of the health crisis, the championship was exceptionally divided into two groups. ASEC will come out second in Pool B before winning the championship while Africa will finish last in Pool A and will be relegated to the lower level. A first.

A sporting rivalry fueled for political purposes

The two clubs were born a few months apart, Africa in 1947, ASEC in 1948. Africa Sports came from CSB, the Bété Sports Club, named after the ethnic group originating from the center -west of the country. To remove this ethnic character, the club changed its name, but "the sociological base has long remained that of the West and therefore of the opposition", indicates Arthur Banga, political scientist... and ASEC supporter. But Félix Houphouët-Boigny [president from 1960 to 1993] had the intelligence not to want this rivalry to be based on ethnicity. He did not hesitate to finance the two clubs, he knew that this rivalry could establish his power. »

ASEC was created by a group of employees and civil servants from Ivory Coast or from several West African countries and even France. The club was long run by notables loyal to the first Ivorian president, before Roger Ouégnin, close to Laurent Gbagbo when he was in power between 2000 and 2010, successfully took over the club in 1989, then losing money. speed. Between 1990 and 2010, the club even won 17 titles, as well as the African Champions League in 1998, and saw the emergence of great players like the brothers Yaya and Kolo Touré, the brothers Bonaventure and Salomon Kalou and even Gervinho, essential links of the golden generation of Ivorian football.

The sporting rivalry between the two clubs was also fueled for political purposes. “Every time there was a crisis or turmoil in society, Houphouët made arrangements with his minister of the armed forces, Blé Kouadio M'bahia, who was also president of ASEC in the 1960s, or later later his son-in-law, Simplice Zinsou, president of Africa in the 1970s-1980s, to organize an ASEC-Africa match, relates the historian Lassiné Coulibaly, specialist in Ivorian football. From that moment on, the entire population only talked about the match and the politicians had time to manage what they had to manage. »

“The lamb ate the wolf”

Star Laurent Pokou, an ASEC player in the 1960s and 1970s, even had to don the Red and Green jersey of the sworn enemy for a match, at the request of President Houphouët-Boigny. It was then a matter of helping Africa Sports against the German club Duisburg. To the great dismay of ASEC supporters. “With Laurent, we didn’t speak for a year,” his cousin Chris Kouamé still remembers today. The opposition between the two clubs dates back to 1954, when ASEC disrupted the domination of the invincible Africa with a 2-1 victory. “This defeat created an atmosphere of anger and vengeance in the Africa camp when the newspapers headlined: ‘The lamb ate the wolf’,” relates historian Lassiné Coulibaly.

But today, the wolf is chasing the lamb. The descent to Ligue 2 was a downgrade for Africa Sports. “We play on pitches worthy of Honor promotion in France,” said Pierre Mariotti during a championship match on the bumpy municipal pitch of OFC Adiaké in early December. It’s complicated, the second division in Ivory Coast, especially when it’s called Africa Sports. It’s a big club that was recognized and now politically we’re going to say that it’s not on the right side. We feel that at the refereeing level, we are a little unloved.”

According to him, since the election of Narcisse Kuyo Téa as club president in 2021, old rivalries have returned. The president of Africa Sports is close to former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, now in opposition. And on the sidelines, the supporters are getting annoyed. “The referee is paid by ASEC,” shouts a supporter, sparking laughter and nods around him. A sign that the competition, maintained in particular by political actors who do not hesitate to show their support for one of the two teams, is not dead.