DAKAR, Senegal — Soccer is great for business, according to a woman who sells what she calls “sacrifices.”
On game days, her plastic bags of water are especially popular. They’re meant to soothe tension when you buy one and gift it to a stranger.
“It’s a good omen,” said Aissa Dione, 26, who carries the offerings in a basket on her head.
Hours before her native Senegal challenged Algeria in the Africa Cup of Nations final on Friday, the petite merchant in a green jersey said people kept purchasing her 50-cent refreshments and passing them off at random — “right in front of me.”
Everyone’s excited, she said. Everyone’s nervous.
The frantic, joyous energy started in the morning with fans honking horns and waving Senegalese flags and emptying their lungs into vuvuzelas.
It’s the first time the Lions of Teranga — Senegal’s much-beloved national team — have made it to the championship in 17 years. They’ve never won the continent’s biggest sporting trophy. (Algeria claimed the prize in 1990.)
Eyes on the biennial Africa Cup, which began in 1957, have surged in recent years as more countries across the continent have gained broadcasting rights. Viewership has grown by almost two-thirds since 2017, African Union of Broadcasting officials said. At least 650 million people are expected to watch this year.
Soccer commands special attention on the continent. People collectively hit pause, forget their anger and — as was the case for the Ivory Coast during the 2006 World Cup — have even halted war.
“It affords people a chance to forget about politics for a while,” said Pearl Matibe, founding director of Advocates for Progress, a think tank focused on a free society in her home country of Zimbabwe.
They set aside concerns — at least for a day — about corruption accusations against Senegalese leaders, including president Macky Sall, who is still dealing with the fallout from a BBC investigation into his brother’s oil dealings.
And they overlook corruption accusations rocking the Confederation of African Football, which initially awarded this year’s tournament to authoritarian Cameroon before ultimately deciding on Egypt.
“Today, when one thinks African football — instead of thinking development of the game — one tends to think of embezzlement charges and crookedness,” Matibe said. “However, for the continent of Africa, the Africa Cup of Nations is a boost in energy, entertainment, and enthusiasm — all positives that signify moving forward.”
Fan superstition spiked in the capital city of Dakar ahead of Friday’s showdown, trickling into afternoon prayers.
Babacar Diouf, 38, got out of his taxi downtown and fell to his knees, asking a greater power for a Senegalese victory. Then he hopped back into the driver’s seat and headed home, cutting his normal workday in half.
“There will be no reason to drive during the game,” he said. “No one will be out.”
Diouf — like everyone else he knew — would be glued in front of a television. He’d rather avoid the outdoor watch parties.
“Mixing aggression with jubilation,” he said, “that worries me.”
Police patrolled the streets Friday, anticipating the universal sort of big-game rowdiness — plus a burst of pickpocketing that accompanies distracted crowds.
People joked the unusually cloudy sky was a good thing — a result of extra water use, perhaps.
“Allez les Lions!” Sall tweeted. Go lions!
“Allez les Lions!” said Youssa Sonho, 20, as he climbed a ladder to string red, yellow and green ribbon — Senegal’s colors — around a streetlight.
Sonho, a tailor, and 15 of his friends spent the week collecting money from people in their neighborhood to buy the fabric. Together they raised 35,000 West African CFA francs, or about $60.
Then they went to the market, found the brightest shades and cut the fine material into little triangles to drape over the roads. The goal: Turn the city into a shrine to soccer.
“It’s the patriotic thing to do,” he said with a grin. “This is our time now.”
Borso Tall contributed to this report.