BOUAKE, Ivory Coast- As Brazil gears up to host the World Cup Final next month at the legendary Maracana stadium, the Ivory Coast city of Bouake has held its own homage to the beautiful game — the Maracana Cup.
The competition takes its name from the iconic Rio de Janeiro ground, venue for the 1950 World Cup final, which Brazil lost to Uruguay in front of 200,000 tearful fans.
A specialized form of Ivorian football, Maracana is played on a small pitch between two sides of six, without goalkeepers.
Goals are only scored from inside the box, with the focus on technique and audacity, similar to its role model, the Brazilian “futebol”.
Maracana’s inspiration comes straight from Brazil where, in 1973, 20 Ivorian students were given the chance to spend a month’s football pilgrimage by then president Félix Houphouet-Boigny.
The “father of the Ivorian nation” — as Houphouet-Boigny was known — hoped the trip would open the eyes of his young compatriots. Instead, it started a lifelong footballing infatuation.
The Brazilian national team, known as La Selecao, had won three of the previous four World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Its star players, Pele, Jairzinho and Gerson became sporting icons, and the Maracana was a vital stop for the Ivorian students.
“When they returned, they immediately had the idea to borrow the name “Maracana” for their version of the sport, played on handball courts” at Cocody university, recalls Jean-Baptiste Kipre, who was part of a second group of Ivorian students to visit Brazil, in 1977.
Football was already played on small pitches throughout Ivory Coast, but the Maracana version would codify the rules “with an Ivorian flavour,” said 57-year-old Kipre.
He remembers seeing children in Rio’s poor favelas, playing with two bricks as goalposts during his tour.
“This was how I learned to play football in my country, using a cloth or latex ball,” he says.