What is the top US diplomat doing at an African football event?
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took in an AFCON match in Ivory Coast, showcasing a rare instance of the US leveraging football as a form of soft power to counter China and Russia.
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While Ivory Coast endured a devastating defeat on their home turf at the African Cup of Nations on Monday, the highest-ranking US diplomat observed the proceedings alongside the Ivorian political elite from a VIP box at the 60,000-seat stadium.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived shortly before half-time and stayed for the remainder of the match, which ended in a 4-0 loss for Ivory Coast that left the host nation facing a group-stage exit from the competition. During a meeting with Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara the next day, Blinken was nevertheless complimentary of the team and their future prospects.
"Someone once said that football is life. There are ups and there are downs," he said in French. "But for my part, I saw a young team with enormous talent.”
In a statement published by the US State Department, Blinken also hailed football as arguably “the most powerful unifier in the world.”
“So it’s great to be a small part of this here to honor the incredible work that the Ivory Coast is doing in bringing all of these countries together, bringing all of us together,” Blinken said.
While the top US diplomat is a self-professed football fan, his decision to attend an AFCON game—an anomaly for a high-ranking US official—was not just about football. It was a deliberate display of soft power, one that says much about US foreign policy interests in Africa.