Oyem (Gabon) (AFP) – Stadiums may not be full at the Africa Cup of Nations but the supporters who do turn out create a noisy and colourful atmosphere — and in the case of DR Congo the government is giving a helping hand.

The DRC’s capital Kinshasa is the home of “Sape”, a French acronym short for the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People, and one such group add a classy touch to their team’s matches.

While men’s Fashion Week has just come to an end in Paris, 7,500 kilometres away in the Gabonese town of Oyem around 100 Congolese fans are putting the finest designers in the shade with their own distinctive outfits.

Their striking shirts, sarongs and trousers in blue fabric with yellow and red flowers — the colours of the national flag — are dotted with little leopards on the chest and down the side and carry patriotic slogans in red letters.

“The government have made a big effort to try to help the Leopards win the Cup of Nations,” sports minister Willy Bakonga told AFP.

“Their transport, accommodation, their get-up… everything has been taken into account not only for the team but also for the supporters because we know the supporters can influence the performances of the players and therefore the results.”

And it seems to be working: DR Congo beat Togo 3-1 on Tuesday to clinch a Cup of Nations quarter-finals spot. 

Dickson Yala, a Congolese journalist wearing the outfit, says that fashion “plays an integral part” in the culture of the war-weary country.

“Every time the DRC takes part in an international competition the government puts down money to pay for the supporters’ outfits. It is a kind of uniform,” he says.

Antoine-Pierre Loji Kazadi, a 50-year-old teacher, wore the same “uniform” as he attended the Leopards’ 2-2 draw with the Ivory Coast in Oyem along with his son.

He said: “When our opponents see us looking elegant like this, psychologically it scores us a point!

“We are already beating them in terms of elegance and so we expect the same outcome on the field.”

– ‘In our blood’ –

The Malian fans may have been the noisiest to visit Oyem so far, while the Togolese may have provided more of a carnival-style atmosphere than anyone else, and the Ivorians are the most ingenious with their costumes.

But everyone agrees it is the Congolese who come out top.

“They are classy! Whatever the circumstances and wherever they are, they feel they need to have a certain presence,” says Redouane Behache, a 32-year-old actor known for his role parodying an exuberant Congolese “sapeur”.

“It is a party, it never stops. It is a joyful country. For them, makeup and face paint is frightening. To support the Leopards you can’t make them afraid,” he tells AFP with a smile.

“Sape”, a kind of African dandyism, is a movement that originated in Congo-Brazzaville, then a French colony, after the Second World War.

It took off on both sides of the Congo river in the 1960s, after colonialism ended.

In the DRC “Sape” was popularised and personified by stars of the music scene like the legendary Papa Wemba, who died in April last year.

“Everywhere you go in Kinshasa you will find a designer, a stylist. Dressing well is the most normal thing a Congolese person can do,” says the journalist Yala.

“From 5:00pm onwards, you say to yourself: ‘Is it Kinshasa Fashion Week or what?'”

None of this is lost on the players.

“It is in our blood, it has been like that since the dawn of time. I grew up surrounded by it and so I am used to it,” says Neeskens Kebano.

Coach Florent Ibenge agrees.

“Football, music and religion, that’s the Congo,” he told AFP.

“We have a population that has gone through difficult times and at the moment football gives them joy.

“Today I am happy because the whole country is happy. And this little piece of happiness, you cannot imagine how good it feels.”