playing soccer in abidjan get yourself a pair of leke

In Ivory Coast, where a major tournament has drawn the continent’s best teams, a plastic sandal is the preferred gear for pickup games and almost everything else.

The wealthy pros of Ivory Coast’s national soccer team were resting in their luxury hotel last week, preparing for a match in Africa’s biggest tournament, when Yaya Camara sprinted onto a dusty lot and began fizzing one pass after another to his friends.

Over and over, he corralled the game’s underinflated ball and then sent it away again with his favorite soccer shoes: worn plastic sandals long derided as the sneaker of the poor, but which he and his friends wear as a badge of honor.

Shiny soccer cleats like his idols’? No thanks, said Mr. Camara, a lean 18-year-old midfielder, as he wiped sweat from his brow.

“How did the pros started playing when they were kids like us? With lêkê,” he added, referring to the sandals that are ubiquitous not only in his pickup game but almost any place an Ivorian puts their feet.

While the best African teams run out in expensive branded cleats at this year’s continental soccer championship, the Africa Cup of Nations, it is in lêkê (pronounced leh-keh) that amateur players craft the best street soccer.

They praise the cheaper sandals for their practicality — “They’re lighter, they fit better and they’re more comfortable where we play,” as Mr. Camara put it — in games that take place not on manicured grass fields in shiny new stadiums but on countless sandy pitches, dusty courtyards and narrow alleyways.

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