This Is Terrible

I wish I was writing about Egypt’s African Cup title, however it pales in importance to another African Cup story.

On January 30, 2010 Togo was suspended by the Confederation of African Football for the 2012 and 2014 African Nations’ Cups. The official explanation cited Article 78 of the Cup of Nations regulations, which states that a $50,000 fine and a 4 year ban from cup play is the mandatory penalty for a last-minute forfeit. Togo failed to appear for its opening round game against Ghana after the players were told to stay home by their government following an ambush on the team bus by Cabinda province independence rebels.

The CAF claims they are only suspending the Togolese team to punish Togo’s government for interfering with the players’ request to return and play in the tournament. This clever phrasing evokes the image of the Togolese team penned up, forcibly prevented from making their triumphant return to Angola for their first cup game, which was scheduled three days after the attack and, according to CAF, could not be moved. The decision was the latest in a series of shocking announcements from the CAF, which has persistently expressed their concern for the Togolese team’s welfare while simultaneously criticizing the team, the Togo Football Association, and Togo’s government for the deadly attack.

The careful wording of the CAF’s announcement was very much for international media consumption. It implies that the CAF’s ruling supported a hostage team, restricted from playing football by an autocratic government.

To call this detestable is not enough. The CAF is trying to buttress itself from blame for three permanently lost lives by sowing division between the Togolese team and its government.

As the Philly Soccer Page noted just after the attack, the CAF scolded Togo for traveling into Angola by bus. Implicit in that callow chiding is CAF’s knowledge that road travel in Cabinda is unsafe; matches were scheduled in the province despite a violent insurgency poorly hidden by Angola’s repression of local media. Togo was told to play in a region in which road safety is not merely undesirable, it is openly dangerous. And the bile-inducing irony is that the rebel attack was meant as a provocation to the Angolan government. Togo just happened to be a convenient target (so recklessly painted with bright red circles by a negligent government) for a militant force hoping to draw attention to their cause. In other words, Togolese lives were lost because Angola and the CAF placed their matches in a region where violent rebels craved international eyes on their struggle.

Why haven’t any national Football associations spoken out against the CAF’s conduct? Where are the great tsk-tskers of international footy, always giddy to discuss footy’s unifying power, so ready to tout the human interest story when promoting their sport, so prepared to debate profit sharing at the drop of a hat. Regardless of who is to blame for Togo’s decision to withdraw from the Cup of Nations, a series of disastrous decisions had to be made in order to put a football team in the middle of a violent struggle for Cabindian independence. Why was Angola chosen to host the cup? The history of violence in Cabinda was no secret, nor was Angola’s pressure on the local media to downplay the insurgency’s strength and continued militant rhetoric (despite a 2006 peace treaty that included only a few of the many insurgent groups).

Take a moment and consider: What is your first reaction when you think about the US National team bus being attacked in South Africa this summer. I react with anger, then with nationalistic paternalism: This is a sporting event, not a war. I want those players back in the United States pronto, especially if the head of the government is telling me that his concerns about the future safety of the team had gone, “‘totally disregarded’ by officials in Angola and the Confederation of African Football (Caf).” This is a morbid and disgusting exercise, but it serves the very important function of underlining just how despicable it is for any tournament organizer to treat the loss of life under its watch in anything less than the most sympathetic terms. In terms of priorities, a football match and a nation’s three days of mourning do not belong on the same scale. No matter how many players announce their willingness to return to the scene of the crime, the government simply cannot allow an athletic team to travel if it is not overwhelmingly assured of its players’ safety. And no matter how much money it makes, no football tournament should be held in a region where travel is restricted by internal violence. A region with that problem and a government that ignores it are not ready to host international events of any kind, and organizers at the CAF are responsible for ignoring this inarguable fact.


  1. Mike Servedio says:

    Great commentary. This is absurd though. Hopefully common sense prevails here and they lift the ban.

  2. Ed Farnsworth says:

    Is it possible that FIFA can intervene in this? (Yes, I am aware of the element of absurdity in thinking that FIFA exists to do anything other than promote itself and line the pockets of those who run the organization.)

  3. I’m not sure what FIFA can do. The sad fact is that most of CAF’s money is made under the table – through back room handshakes and individual accounts. If you look at their 2009 financial report, you might wonder how their administrators make a living given all the events they sponsor. They made most of their official profit last year from revenues collected by African teams in the Olympics.

    So without financial pressure, I’m not sure what FIFA’s options are. At minimum I wish they would speak out on what both you and Mike have rightly dubbed an absurd situation.

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