The rich professionals of Ivory Coast’s nationwide soccer crew have been resting of their luxurious lodge final week, getting ready for a match in Africa’s largest event, when Yaya Camara sprinted onto a dusty lot and started fizzing one move after one other to his pals.
Time and again, he corralled the sport’s underinflated ball after which despatched it away once more together with his favourite soccer footwear: worn plastic sandals lengthy derided because the sneaker of the poor, however which he and his pals put on as a badge of honor.
Shiny soccer cleats like his idols’? No thanks, mentioned Mr. Camara, a lean 18-year-old midfielder, as he wiped sweat from his forehead.
“How did the professionals began taking part in after they have been children like us? With lêkê,” he added, referring to the sandals which can be ubiquitous not solely in his pickup recreation however nearly anyplace an Ivorian places their toes.
Whereas one of the best African groups run out in costly branded cleats at this yr’s continental soccer championship, the Africa Cup of Nations, it’s in lêkê (pronounced leh-keh) that novice gamers craft one of the best road soccer.
They reward the cheaper sandals for his or her practicality — “They’re lighter, they match higher and so they’re extra comfy the place we play,” as Mr. Camara put it — in video games that happen not on manicured grass fields in shiny new stadiums however on numerous sandy pitches, dusty courtyards and slim alleyways.
“Lêkê are the nationwide footwear of Ivory Coast,” mentioned Seydou Traoré, his toes resting inside an orange pair (the nationwide coloration) as he watched a nerve-racking match on a tv pulled into the road alongside dozens of neighbors and pals. A lot of them wore lêkê, too.
It’s unclear how the shoe grew to become so common in Ivory Coast. Most gamers mentioned they’d been carrying them since they have been toddlers. College youngsters put on them to high school. And so they blossom on numerous toes when the streets of Abidjan fill with water throughout the wet season.
And whereas the jelly shoe has turn into stylish within the style world lately, with luxurious manufacturers like Gucci making their very own model, they’re stylish in Ivory Coast for causes of each fashion and pragmatism.
“Aside from within the workplace, you may put on them all over the place, even at a celebration,” mentioned Mr. Traoré, an novice participant who as soon as competed in Ivory Coast’s second league.
Heels, costume footwear or leather-based sandals stay the favored footwear for the workplace in Ivory Coast, one in every of West Africa’s largest economies and residential to a dynamic center class. However the attraction of lêkê shone by few years in the past, when one of many nation’s most well-known singers turned businessman posed on the quilt of a mode journal carrying a Western-style grey swimsuit and white plastic sandals.
The story goes that the jelly sandal was born in 1946, when a French knifemaker invented the unique mannequin as a method to make use of a big batch of plastic he had ordered to make knives. Its unique form — soles studded with spikes, a spherical tip and a basket-weave high — has barely modified in many years.
The French firm that now owns the patent, Humeau-Beaupreau, sells 800,000 pairs a yr, in line with a consultant of the corporate. However the bulk of the lêkê seen throughout West Africa are manufactured regionally; in Ivory Coast, one can purchase a pair on nearly each road nook for about $1.50.
On a latest afternoon, Céliba Coulibaly and Saliou Diallo have been buying a brand new pair — “chap chap,” they mentioned, or hurriedly — as a result of they’d tickets to gather for a Cup of Nations match later that day that includes Guinea, Mr. Diallo’s residence nation.
After all they’d go to the stadium in lêkê, Mr. Diallo mentioned. “They’re gentle and comfy,” he added. “What else would I put on?”
In Ivory Coast, novice soccer gamers are divided on one of the best mannequin to put on — these bearing the title of the Argentine star Lionel Messi, or these named after Basile Boli, the Ivorian-born French participant who retired from soccer earlier than a lot of these now carrying lêkê have been born.
As soccer footwear, lêkê are a short-term dedication, for the reason that straps typically break after only some weeks. They’re solely changed after they can’t maintain the toes anymore, so worn soles are a degree of pleasure — proof of hours of uninterrupted play on scrappy fields regionally generally known as Maracana, in homage to famed soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The scars and scratches left on toes by the metallic strap are each a badge of struggling and a logo of dedication to the sport, gamers say.
“Let a man include correct sneakers and we’ll make enjoyable of him: ‘You assume you’re an expert participant or what?’” Iliass Sanogo mentioned as he watched a gaggle of pals — all carrying lêkê — play within the hazy twilight.
Avenue distributors mentioned the recognition of the sandals coloured with the Ivorian flag (orange, white and inexperienced) had soared throughout the Africa Cup of Nations.
“Then we began shedding and gross sales collapsed,” joked one in every of them, Aboubakar Samaké, as he hawked jerseys for the event’s groups and every kind of inexperienced and orange goodies, from bracelets to lêkê, in a bustling neighborhood in Abidjan.
The drop in gross sales may additionally be as a result of Mr. Samaké, describing his temper as “overwhelmed” after one notably crushing loss, didn’t go away the home for 2 days.
“However discouragement isn’t an Ivorian factor,” Mr. Samaké rapidly added, now again at work.
Just a few hours later, Ivory Coast’s nationwide crew was scheduled to face the reigning Cup of Nations champion, Senegal. Mr. Camara, dusty and sweaty from his pickup recreation, rushed residence, dropped his lêkê and jumped within the bathe. He resurfaced minutes later carrying an Ivory Coast jersey and clear denims. He left his lêkê to relaxation, donned flip flops, and strolled to a close-by kiosk to look at his crew win.
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