Ten minutes drive from the coastal Angolan city of Benguela, on the edge of what was once an abandoned banana plantation, a massive white steel structure emerges from the surrounding shanties and barren fields. Only a single paved road runs alongside it. Benguela’s stadium is one of four built for the 2010 African Cup of Nations, an event designed to showcase Angola’s charge toward modernity. The event resembles, on a somewhat reduced scale, the World Cup. But with the barriers Angola needed to hurdle to prepare for its hosting duties, the event may as well have been the Olympics. Only 10 years after a 27-year civil war, much of Angola’s national infrastructure remained shattered, with land mines marking conflict zones across its landscape.

In the 18 months leading up to the African Cup, more than 900 workers toiled to build the...

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