CIEE had bought 5000CFA ($10) tickets to let us students watch the Sénégal vs Côte d’Ivoire Coupe d’Afrique des Nations (Africa Cup of Nations) playoff game from a covered section. Sénégal needed to score two points against Côte d’Ivoire, the first-seeded team, in order to move on. I’d never attended a professional sporting event and was excited.
I hopped into a taxi with three friends and walked through a barrage of vendors selling Senegalese paraphernalia to get to the stadium. We first went through a security check, where most of us had to chug the 1.5-L bottles of water we’d brought as a precaution against dehydration. After a cursory bag check, we were asked if we’d brought lighters and were then allowed to pass.
The game started at 6 but we arrived at 2 to ensure that we got seats, since none were assigned. Walking around the stadium was fun; as toubabs sporting Senegalese gear, we attracted a lot of attention. The shared spirit was infectious and the atmosphere was exuberant. In the stadium, I got in a few solid hours of French practice by talking to the Senegalese man sitting next to me. He advised that my friends and I wait in the stadium after the game was finished until most people had left to ward against pickpockets.
The stadium continued to fill in until people were sitting on the stairs next to the seats. Fans were dancing, singing Olé, and cheering. Finally the game started. For the first half, I sat on the edge of my seat. No goals were made but Sénégal seemed to be doing pretty well, keeping the ball mostly on the Côte d’Ivorian side. Sporting events were more fun than I expected! Then Sénégal fouled and Côte d’Ivoire scored on its penalty shot.
To our disappointment, Sénégal fouled again 10 minutes later. There was a small commotion as an upset fan tried to run onto the field to stop the penalty kick from happening. He was immediately tackled and Côte d’Ivoire made its second goal of the night. With 20 minutes left in the game, I prepared to leave in anticipation of beating the crowd home when I noticed a fire.
“They’re burning a flag!” one of my classmates yelled. I was in shock. Fire! Apparently security hadn’t done a good job of checking for lighters. Now many people were trying to exit and I decided against leaving now since I didn’t want to get caught with them. Then a small fight broke out right in front of me; my friends pulled me up a few rows to some newly-vacant seats so we could dodge the violence.
When we looked back, there were four fires, then seven, then… we lost count.
The fans had abandoned their team so quickly. These people, who unironically wore jerseys that exclaimed “SENEGAL” in daily life had burned their own flag.
Spectators had begun throwing bags of water or anything else they had on hand onto the pitch. Now I understood why we weren’t allowed 1.5-L bottles. Soon a thin layer of trash littered the edges of the track. Fan posters that had been hung around the stadium were being torn down. The official flags were ripped from their flagpoles and burned. Some people were dangerously whipping other flags around like sparking poi. The clock continued running.
We heard loud crackling sounds. “Were those guns?” asked a classmate. No, they couldn’t be. Then I noticed the orange-vested policemen aiming into the crowd.
We figured that fortunately they weren’t shooting lead, but rubber and tear gas. Meanwhile the metal barricades around the stadium had been torn off and many of the spectators had streamed into the covered section, cheering the name of a former Senegalese soccer player who had attended the game. In one corner of the stadium, the Côte d’Ivorian supporters had moved away from the edges of their section toward the middle to avoid violence, and had then evacuated by jumping from the stands onto the pitch.
The clock had finally been stopped with about 15 minutes of the match left, but the game was obviously over. My classmates and I stayed in the stands, wanting to leave, but having no way back home since there were no more taxis. My eyes begun to sting from all of the smoke.
After more waiting, we finally decided that the situation had calmed down enough for us to safely leave. We exited, and then sped up because there was more tear gas outside. We asked a military guard for help returning home. He told us to wait 10 minutes for taxis, but upon discovering that we were American, and not French, immediately had us follow him to transportation.
As we crossed an overpass, other fans leaving the game told my friend Phoebe, who was wearing a jersey, in English, “You don’t need to be wearing that. Take it off. The team is s***. Take that off.” Phoebe remarked that it was surprising, perhaps even disconcerting, that this 95% Muslim country had reacted to the “Innocence of Muslims” incident by writing a polite letter (recall that Libya and Egypt had staged attacks on American embassies that had resulted in deaths), but had saved their rioting for losing a soccer match.
When I got home, I was shaking, but I don’t regret going. It was a rare experience though I am less enthusiastic about sporting events than I was before half-time. Unfortunately, I didn’t escape completely unscathed. Before the match had even started, my phone went missing, and my watch, which wasn’t even flashy, was stolen right off of my wrist. I’d been in the bathroom when about eight men had come up to me, talked to me, and started touching me everywhere. I was so distracted that I didn’t notice my watch was gone until 30 seconds after they left. I was very angry because I’d spent hours on Amazon finding the most affordable watch that included an accurate compass.