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.
“Lêkê are the national shoes of Ivory Coast,” said Seydou Traoré, his feet resting inside an orange pair (the national color) as he watched a nerve-racking match on a television pulled into the street alongside dozens of neighbors and friends. Many of them wore lêkê, too.
It is unclear how the shoe became so popular in Ivory Coast. Most players said they had been wearing them since they were toddlers. School children wear them to school. And they blossom on countless feet when the streets of Abidjan fill with water during the rainy season.
And while the jelly shoe has become trendy in the fashion world in recent years, with luxury brands like Gucci making their own version, they’re chic in Ivory Coast for reasons of both style and pragmatism.
“Apart from in the office, you can wear them everywhere, even at a party,” said Mr. Traoré, an amateur player who once competed in Ivory Coast’s second league.
Heels, dress shoes or leather sandals remain the favored shoes for the office in Ivory Coast, one of West Africa’s largest economies and home to a dynamic middle class. But the appeal of lêkê shone through few years ago, when one of the country’s most famous singers turned businessman posed on the cover of a style magazine wearing a Western-style gray suit and white plastic sandals.
The story goes that the jelly sandal was born in 1946, when a French knifemaker invented the original model as a way to use a large batch of plastic he had ordered to make knives. Its original shape — soles studded with spikes, a round tip and a basket-weave top — has barely changed in decades.
The French company that now owns the patent, Humeau-Beaupreau, sells 800,000 pairs a year, according to a representative of the company. But the bulk of the lêkê seen across West Africa are manufactured locally; in Ivory Coast, one can buy a pair on almost every street corner for about $1.50.
On a recent afternoon, Céliba Coulibaly and Saliou Diallo were purchasing a new pair — “chap chap,” they said, or hurriedly — because they had tickets to collect for a Cup of Nations match later that day featuring Guinea, Mr. Diallo’s home country.
Of course they would go to the stadium in lêkê, Mr. Diallo said. “They’re light and comfortable,” he added. “What else would I wear?”
In Ivory Coast, amateur soccer players are divided on the best model to wear — those bearing the name of the Argentine star Lionel Messi, or those named after Basile Boli, the Ivorian-born French player who retired from soccer before many of those now wearing lêkê were born.
As soccer shoes, lêkê are a short-term commitment, since the straps often break after only a few weeks. They are only replaced when they can’t hold the feet anymore, so worn soles are a point of pride — proof of hours of uninterrupted play on scrappy fields locally known as Maracana, in homage to famed soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The scars and scratches left on feet by the metallic strap are both a badge of suffering and a symbol of dedication to the game, players say.
“Let a guy come with proper sneakers and we’ll make fun of him: ‘You think you’re a professional player or what?’” Iliass Sanogo said as he watched a group of friends — all wearing lêkê — play in the hazy twilight.
Street vendors said the popularity of the sandals colored with the Ivorian flag (orange, white and green) had soared during the Africa Cup of Nations.
“Then we started losing and sales collapsed,” joked one of them, Aboubakar Samaké, as he hawked jerseys for the tournament’s teams and all kinds of green and orange goodies, from bracelets to lêkê, in a bustling neighborhood in Abidjan.
The drop in sales might also be because Mr. Samaké, describing his mood as “overwhelmed” after one particularly crushing loss, didn’t leave the house for two days.
“But discouragement isn’t an Ivorian thing,” Mr. Samaké quickly added, now back at work.
A few hours later, Ivory Coast’s national team was scheduled to face the reigning Cup of Nations champion, Senegal. Mr. Camara, dusty and sweaty from his pickup game, rushed home, dropped his lêkê and jumped in the shower. He resurfaced minutes later wearing an Ivory Coast jersey and clean jeans. He left his lêkê to rest, donned flip flops, and strolled to a nearby kiosk to watch his team win.