Football: 'The curse is over!' - Ivorians rejoice in African Cup win

ABIDJAN (AFP) - A million ecstatic Ivorians flocked to the streets of Abidjan Monday to welcome home the national football squad after its nail-biting victory over Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations final, police said.

Sunday's 9-8 penalty shootout win by The Elephants, who are due to parade in the city's football stadium, ended a 23-year Africa Cup of Nations title drought.

A tightly-packed crowd amassed along the road linking the country's commercial capital Abidjan to the airport - the route victorious members of The Elephants squad were to take on their way for a celebration of Sunday's final victory in Equatorial Guinea.

After being greeted by Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara upon landing, team members waded through joyous fans before mounting a bus taking them to the national Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium.

According to Ivorian public radio, the 35,000-seat stadium was filled to capacity by mid-morning, and despite appeals from authorities for fans to avoid the crammed venue, crowds unable to enter spilled out into surrounding neighbourhoods.

The nervy final ended in an explosion of joy across Ivory Coast after goalkeeper Boubacar Barry - nicknamed "Coppa" - drove home the winning penalty shot after blocking a spot-kick from his Ghanaian counterpart Razak Braimah.

On Monday Barry was treated to a hero's reception, with fans chanting "Coppa, you are a god!"

Elsewhere in Abidjan and throughout the nation, an army of orange jersey-clad fans took advantage of the paid holiday Outtara decreed in honour of the victory.

"When we flew over the city we saw the amazing crowds. It was really moving," enthused striker Wilfried Bony, who was taken aback by the popular outpouring.

"You can tell Ivory Coast is a nation that loves football," quipped striker Salomon Kalou.

The surge of popular glee began the second the winning goal was scored, breaking the tension created by 90 minutes of scoreless football, plus two periods of blank extra-time.

"The curse is finally over! The Ivorians are the kings of Africa tonight," cheered Alexandre, a student who watched the game with hundreds of others on a giant screen at Felix Houphouet-Boigny University.

"History has repeated itself," said Moussa, a young supporter, who had painted his cheeks in the orange, green and white of the Ivorian flag, referring to the country's last Africa Cup win in 1992 - also in a final against Ghana that ended in penalties.

Some fans pointed to the victory as a symbol of unity in a country scarred by years of conflict.

"For years we wept but we deserve this Cup. Today we are all behind this team," Ahmed, another fan in Abidjan, said.

National cohesion had been an elusive ideal for most of the past decade.

The world's biggest cocoa producer was divided between 2003 and 2011 between a rebel-held north and a south controlled by forces loyal to ex-president Laurent Gbagbo.

The violence peaked after a disputed presidential poll in late 2010. After four months of fighting in which 3,000 people were killed, forces loyal to Ouattara, the internationally-recognised winner, ousted Gbagbo.

Throughout the conflict years The Elephants were held up as a symbol of unity - but the team's failure to achieve glory, despite being fronted by Chelsea legend Didier Drogba for 12 years until 2014, gave the country little cause for celebration.

Until Sunday.

"Ivory Coast has been reconciled tonight. We don't need politicians to reconcile us. The Elephants did it!," said Mamadou Soro, a teaching inspector in the central city of Bouake.

Ouattara's administration attempted to reap dividends from the win, which comes nine months before the country returns to the polls.

Within minutes of the final whistle the president's Rally of the Republicans party rushed out a statement heaping praise on the champions' "brilliance".

"We have a wonderful team and an exceptional manager. This team was consistent and united. Bravo to them!," Ouattara said on national television.