Caging the Elephants

When the Ivory Coast unexpectedly tumbled out of the African Nations Cup at the first hurdle, the military junta took the extraordinary step of jailing the entire squad. Mick Slatter takes up the story

If losing is a crime, then the Ivorians were suitably punished. On arriving home after their elimination, the players and staff had probably expected to encounter nothing more serious than a few disappointed fans and an awkward press conference at the airport. Instead they found themselves imprisoned and their passports confiscated.

Technically their new home wasn’t a prison but a military barracks. Either way, it was pretty grim, and like a prison they weren’t allowed to leave. One local reporter summed up the camp’s dubious charms thus: “It’s not a holiday camp, and it’s thick with mosquitoes. It’s not the sort of place where you get omelettes for breakfast.”

The military government – who had seized power in a coup only two months previously – were quick to try and justify their peculiar action. The players, they claimed, were “lodging” at the camp for their own protection from irate fans. But reports soon leaked out that the junta leader, General Robert Guei – himself a football fan – had been angered by the team’s insipid performance. Then it emerged that the incarcerated players were being given “lessons in patriotism”. Apparently few Ivorians cared. There was no Amnesty-style campaign to “free the Ivory Coast 22”. In fact most appeared to think that a little jailing was the least their former heroes deserved.

So what exactly had the Elephants done to earn a few days in the cooler? The simple answer is that they had lost. Their slide toward ignominy began when they managed only a draw with lowly Togo and their prison suits were dusted down after a 3-0 gubbing at the hands of the eventual winners Cameroon. A 2-0 win over joint hosts Ghana wasn’t enough to prevent elimination at the group stage. And as far as the military junta was concerned – and indeed much of the nation – losing could not be tolerated. Ivory Coast had, after all, won the tournament in 1992; to go out in the first round was viewed as nothing less than a national humiliation.

And then there was the money issue. Each player picked up some £4,000 for representing the Ivory Coast, serious cash in the eyes of the average Ivorian. The kind of money that should have ensured, no, guaranteed, victory for the Elephants. And it appeared to many that the money had been earned under false pretences, that the players had gone back on a gentleman’s agreement. Theft, if you like. And theft is, of course, often punished with a spell in prison.

One of the few Ivorians brave enough to speak up for the increasingly nervous players was former France international Basile Boli, who travelled to the military camp where he was assured by officials that the players would be released. Boli took the promise at face value, but someone carelessly mislaid the key and the players remained inside for another 36 hours. Boli had pointed out the obvious to the government flunkies, that most of the players had contracts with clubs in Europe who would soon be asking some very tricky questions as to the whereabouts of their valuable assets.

After some three days in detention the players were freed, unharmed, but no doubt traumatised by their bizarre punishment. It was at that point that the military junta began to offer some half-hearted and particularly unconvincing apologies to the effect that the whole affair had been a “dreadful misunderstanding”. General Guei himself was said to be “surprised” at the players’ plight.

During his efforts to negotiate with government officials, Boli had stated – perhaps somewhat superfluously – that when their freedom and mobile phones were restored to them, few of the squad would be falling over themselves to report for duty next time the nation required their services. Because, of course, Elephants never forget.

From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month