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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Olympique Abobo, the Ivorian club that produces stars – but gets no return

Thirteen years ago, Ivory Coast was tearing itself apart.

In its second civil war, the current president, Alassane Ouattara, whose name is given to the stadium that will host the final of the Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday, controlled much of the south of the country from his rebel stronghold in Abobo, a settlement in the north of Abidjan.

It was there, in January 2011, that government forces led by Laurent Gbagbo and supported by Liberian mercenaries killed 12 of Ouattara’s rebels using rocket-propelled grenades. A month later, after a police raid in the quarter led to the confiscation of arms, 15 gendarmes died in an ambush. A month after that, with the international community turning against Gbagbo, he made a final attempt to drive the rebels out of Abobo and this led to another 30 deaths following heavy shelling.

Read more on AFCON

Gbagbo was removed in April 2011 when a mix of French and UN forces broke into his presidential palace and arrested him. Much has changed in Ivory Coast since, with the economy surging, though Ouattara has emerged as another strongman who in October 2023 demonstrated his power by removing his prime minister before dissolving parliament.

The decision was largely unchallenged. Across Ivory Coast, there is very little criticism of the leader who marched the country out of one of its darkest episodes, not least in Abobo where the scars of war are evident by bullet holes in some of the crumbling tenement blocks.

Amza Gamal, looking at the phone he was rarely off, with his under-20s coaching staff (Simon Hughes)

Maybe there should be no surprise that Ouattara gained much of his support here. In simple terms, Abobo was one of the poorest parts of Abidjan and people felt like they were being ignored by the Gbagbo government. They wanted change but has that arrived? Nobody seems to be willing to really say. Politics remains a hushed subject in Ivory Coast, yet according to Amza Gamal, a certain fact remains.

“If you want to find a footballer, you come to Abobo, not Cocody,” he tells The Athletic as he looks out across a litter-strewn sandpit where players from the club he is president of and founded, Olympique Abobo, have training sessions and, occasionally, matches.

Cocody, a few miles south of Abobo, is the wealthiest part of Abidjan. There, you have tarmac roads, strip malls, villas, private hospitals and reputable schools. Gamal concedes that the area’s transformation has been rapid over the last 13 years, though the acceleration started from a higher point than Abobo.

“There is more talent here,” Gamal continues. “Football is an escape from poverty. Boys like football and they want to be famous. It’s a way to be rich. When you go to Cocody, there are no good players. They are already rich.”

The district of Abobo has produced Africa Cup of Nations winners like Gervinho and Wilfried Bony as well as Arouna Kone, who spent 20 years playing at the highest levels in Europe.

The current squad includes Ousmane Diomande who, until 2020, was being coached by Gamal at Olympique Abobo.

Since joining Sporting Lisbon 13 months ago, Diomande has been linked with moves to some of Europe’s biggest clubs for enormous sums of money. AFCON has not gone to plan for him, however. After being included in the starting XI in each of Ivory Coast’s group games, he has not featured at all since a chastening 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea, a result that led to the sacking of Jean-Louis Gasset and left the nation relying on other results to ensure progress to the knockout rounds.

There are academies in Ivory Coast that have formal relationships with clubs in Europe but Olympique Abobo is not one of them. Diomande’s route is a case study for players who rely on long-standing friendships rather than networks. Gamal says he got him a trial at LASK Linz in Austria at first, “but they said he was not so good”. Then scouts from Hammarby in Sweden and Zulte Waregem in Belgium watched him. “They came to see him and other players in Abidjan. “The response was the same. In my view they were wrong. They had a certain vision about what a player should look like.”

When Gamal showed a video of Diomande to an agent, he organised a trial with Midtjylland. This involved the player travelling to Accra in Ghana twice to get the visas he needed to enter Denmark. Diomande never played for Midtjylland’s first team, however, because during a loan spell with Portuguese second division side Mafra, he was spotted by Sporting, who committed to a deal worth €7.5million (£6.4m; $8m), which could rise to €12.5m (£10.7m; $13.4m) with add-ons.

Twelve months later, Gamal says Olympique Abobo are yet to receive solidarity payments through FIFA for the club’s role in the player’s development. It frustrates him that the world’s leading football authority only recognises the club’s involvement from the point Diomande was officially registered at 16, when his association with Olympique Abobo stretches across a much longer period of time, starting at the age of nine.

The team just before kicking off on the synthetic pitch (Simon Hughes)

“There is no consideration for this,” says Gamal despondently. “Instead, we are due a small amount of money but it would still help.”

Diomande’s father was a taekwondo instructor and discipline ran throughout the family. Gamal cannot remember having to tell the player off once but he says many of the boys at Olympique Abobo would otherwise have been causing problems on the street. He says robbery is a problem in Abobo, where the primary source of employment is informal hawking and average monthly salaries straddle the £100 (around $125) mark.

Since its formation 20 years ago, Olympique Abobo has delivered six international footballers, as well as another 80 or so across Ivory Coast’s youth age groups. In the early years, Gamal cooperated with ASEC Mimosas, the biggest club in the country, by filtering players like Didier Ya Konan into its youth system. Konan moved to Norway and enjoyed a career in the Bundesliga but Olympique Abobo did not benefit, aside from bits of equipment handed down.

Diomande has had success but his club have not benefited (FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Six years ago, Gamal stopped working with ASEC and he has since been looking for a partnership either in Ivory Coast or Europe that would help secure the future of youth football in Abobo, where the majority of families do not have the means to pay for things like training sessions or kit.

“Not a single transfer has helped build an infrastructure here,” he says. The first thing he’d invest in would be a grass field. Currently, Olympique Abobo has access to a synthetic pitch funded by the country’s football association but Gamal says it is not good quality. Players suffer from knee and ankle injuries and if they play in the heat of the afternoon, the pitch warms up and they suffer from blisters.

Later on the day we met, he takes The Athletic to the facility. Had Diomande remained at Olympique Abobo, he’d have been playing for the club’s under-20 team against opponents from Yopougon rather than preparing to face Guinea-Bissau in the tournament’s curtain raiser. The standard of the play is high but it’s the little things you notice. The pitch isn’t great. The ball bobbles around everywhere. In fact, is this thing that is central to everyone’s future even round?

So much can be better.

(Top photo: The sand pitch Abobo share with a school; by Simon Hughes)

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