Africa’s football in the shadow of death

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The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has embarked on a colossal gamble to go ahead with the January-February African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament in what amounts to a “valley of the shadow of death”.

It is a huge shadow that is being cast by a tiny organism, too small to be detected other than under a microscope – the Ebola virus. The size of its shadow is clearly illustrated by its destructive footprint of more than 5 000 deaths since the outbreak of Ebola in March in West Africa.

Morocco, for daring to suggest that it would be prudent to postpone the AFCON tournament to protect the health of all involved – players, officials and fans – has been stripped of the privilege to host the tournament. Not having made it through the qualifiers for the tournament, it also lost its automatic participation as host nation.

To add insult to injury, after both South Africa and Ghana had declined the ‘invitation’ to host the tournament, that spot now goes to Equatorial Guinea. The new host did not only not qualify for participation in the tournament by way of the qualifying rounds, but was in fact disqualified four months ago from AFCON for illegally fielding a Cameroonian player in a match against Mauritania.

Signs of desperation

While it could probably be fairly safely guessed that financial and commercial considerations are the main drivers behind AFCON’s insistence that the tournament takes place at the dates originally scheduled, signs of desperation to do so abound. The decision to go ahead also comes in the face of warnings from various quarters about the dangers involved.

The most glaring signs emanate from the new host nation itself. Apart from the overruling of its recent disqualification, Equatorial Guinea (number 37 in terms of Fifa rankings in Africa), has since August this year not issued visas to visitors from neighbouring countries and cancelled all regional flights by its national airline. This is part of its Ebola prevention campaign.

The largest stadiums in the four cities where matches will be played can only host between 4 000 and 5 000 spectators and one city has just about no accommodation for visitors. But then, with all the travel problems expected from lack of visas to available flights plus the Ebola scare this might not be all that big a problem.

As is so often the case, it is not quite sure what happened to the possibility of South Africa stepping in as host.

Judged by a statement from minister of sport Fikile Mbalula South Africa was considered as a replacement host. "There are just too many factors to consider for South Africa if we are to host a tournament of this magnitude.

"Our major concern is the cost implication of such a tournament when South Africa is currently grappling with its own fiscal challenges. A tournament of this nature, if planned outside the normal budgetary cycle, will require budgetary adjustments, a process that is currently not an option.

"The tournament, as is also a concern for Morocco, may also pose a challenge on how we can grapple with the Ebola challenge engulfing the continent at the moment," his statement read.

According to South African Football boss, Danny Jordaan, the country was never even in the ‘pipeline’ to be considered as a replacement host.

Ghana, for its part, was quite clear about the reasons for declining the request to step in as host. Ebola was the reason.

In the meantime the new host hired 50 Cuban doctors as part of the fight to contain the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus during the AFCON tournament.

It can only be hoped that CAF will in the end not regret the fact that they did not heed the words of former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah of Liberia, when he recently pleaded for a postponement to give Morocco time to ensure the safety of players, officials and fans: “Everybody loves this game but nobody really wants to go to the Nations Cup and return home to die.”

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by Steve Spectator

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