Africa Cup of Nations showcases the continent’s finest footballers – and China’s economic clout

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

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.

Their presence 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 Pedro, the Laurent Pokou Stadium was built by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (again, state owned). And the China National Building Material group served as general contractor on the Amadou Gon Coulibaly Stadium in Korhogo.

All of this is part of a long-term policy of “stadium diplomacy” which China has been deploying across the continent. Linked to the belt and road initiative, which is intended to promote trade and foster interdependence between China and other nations, stadiums have frequently been gifted to African nations (or else paid for using relatively cheap loans).

For instance, when Gabon co-hosted (with Equatorial Guinea) 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% 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 to finalise 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.

Chinese stadium diplomacy, which also exists in countries including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Mali and Cameroon, is officially framed as being mutually beneficial. But some critics disagree.

For while recipient nations get gleaming new sports infrastructure, inward investment and export deals, questions remain about the economic and political consequences in terms of control and exploitation.

For China though, the benefits are clear. Stadium diplomacy enables the country to extend its sphere of influence in Africa, often creating a political imbalance which leaves African nations at the behest of Beijing. 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.

Mural of then Ivory Coast captain Yaya Toure with the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations trophy in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
EPA-EFE/LEGNAN KOULA

In the end, Morocco, Spain and Portugal will be hosting that event, and Saudi Arabia is now the sole bidder for 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. And the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has agreed a deal with the Mauritanian Football Association to develop infrastructure and train referees, as part of efforts to boost relations between the two nations.

These moves have provoked a mixed response. Some commentators accuse Saudi Arabia of trying to get Africa hooked on oil as part of a plan to offset decreasing demand elsewhere. Others have observed that Saudi Arabia needs access to Africa’s natural resources (such as lithium, cobalt and copper) to drive its economic reforms.

We have already seen another Gulf nation, Qatar, setting out a template for engagement with Africa. Having hosted the 2022 Fifa World Cup, it decided to fund football projects in Rwanda, while state-owned Qatar Airways made a bid to acquire significant stakes in both Air Rwanda and Kigali’s 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.

by : Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy, SKEMA Business School

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