It looks as if Togo will depart from the Africa Cup of Nations, though games will take place in Cabinda, just days after that region saw that team come under machine gun fire, will three officials dead and one goalkeeper (who had earlier been reported as dead) in intensive care, his life in the balance.
Togo have been under enormous pressure to stay from the tournament organisers, the Angolan authorities and the Confederation of African Football, who have much money and political prestige on the line.
“It is left to you to decide to stay in a competition synonymous with fraternity, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity,” Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou told Togo.
Conflicting reports have been coming out frequently over the past 24 hours as the team deals with all of the demands being made of them. This morning, the Guardian reported Togo were leaving:
Adebayor revealed a conversation he held with Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Togo’s head of state, this morning changed the player’s minds after they had previously vowed to play on.
“That’s what made the difference,” he said. “It was also our families and loved ones at home who called us. They told us we could continue if we wished but that it is the authorities who have the information.”Is there going to be another attack? Nobody knows.
If they asked us back [home], maybe they received a call saying that the threat was not passed. We are obliged to respect that. The head of state knows what is good for our careers and our lives.
“The presidential plane will pick us up. He told me that the plane had left Lomé. There are about two hours flying between Lomé and Cabinda. We will leave in two or three hours.”
The BBC’s Piers Edwards quite rightly questioned the pressure being put on the Togo team to stay (he was writing when it was reported they were staying):
It seems wholly inappropriate to put pressure on footballers who survived a near-death experience to play a tournament, which is the least of their concerns when life was flashing before their eyes, but that is what appears to have been happening.
The pressure has – somehow – worked and Togo’s players are now singing a different tune to the one that reverberated around the world in the aftermath of the attack.
“People died for this tournament, others were injured. We can’t abandon them and leave like cowards,” Alaixys Romao told French sports agency L’Equipe.
“If we stay here, it’s for them. But also so as not to give satisfaction to the rebels. Our government doesn’t necessarily agree with us but we are determined to play in this competition.”
Indeed the Togolese government does not want their players to stay in Cabinda, with the West African nation’s prime minister upping the ante by declaring that if the players ‘present themselves under the Togolese flag, it will be a false representation’.
While this story has no clear end at present, it’s revealing to note that there has never been talk by Confederation of African Football officials of scrapping the tournament.
This is a ruling body for whom money talks and with about 80% of Caf’s revenue coming from the Nations Cup, it’s no surprise at all that no political will has been shown to stop the tournament.
Arsene Wenger made the sensible counter-point that we always hear in these situations: you cannot let the terrorists “win” by cancelling the tournament.
“I don’t believe you just can stop a competition as it rewards the people who provoke the incident and means any competition is stoppable at any time. The international federation has to make sure the security is good enough.
This, of course, is an important point, and Wenger makes it well. At the same time, there are some important reservations about continuing the tournament in this case, and in particular, pressuring Togo to participate and holding games in Cabinda:
(1) In my opinion, the political pressure on Togo is disgraceful, given the human tragedy those players have just gone through. They should have been given several days to recover before even being asked to make a decision. The tournament, at the least, should have been delayed for this: even if FIFA had to dip into their coffers to help Angola and CAF financially cover the costs. They can afford it. Who has the appetite to watch the games starting today anyway?
(2) Togo should have been given the assurance that they would not have to play in Cabinda, with their games, at the least, moved to a safer part of Angola from a region that we now all know all too well (and as Angola’s organisers were well aware) is not safe — and I don’t mean not safe in the sense of today’s modern sense of fear of everything, but in the old-fashioned in-the-grips-of-civil-war-still unsafe. The splinter group of FLEC responsible for the attack have promised to strike again.
(3) Does anyone believe that the motivation of the Angolan government is not political in their insistence games should continue in Cabinda, as indeed, the entire staging of games there was seemingly motivated by their desire to present a firm grip on the oil-rich region that still had an armed separatist movement known to target foreigners? FIFA and CAF, by allowing the political motivation of the Angolan government to determine the course of events, are going against their responsibility to the sport first and to the safety of players, fans and officials.
But those are just my opinions. The last words on this should go not to the blogger writing this from thousands of miles away, nor to Togo’s head of state, or to Issa Hayatou, CAF’s chief shuttled around in executive safety and luxury, but to the captain of Togo, who just two days ago said his final prayers, believing he was about to machined gunned to death on a bus trip to a football match.
Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor has been much maligned in recent times, but his honest thoughts and leadership in this situation has been admirable. Adebayor was speaking before the intervention of the Togolese premier, when the team seemed set on staying. Given his words, I am glad they are leaving.
“If we speak of the dead, the competition should have been cancelled. But CAF (Confederation of African Football) have decided otherwise. We’re going back and we wish good luck to those who will remain, especially to Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
“What I have told their leaders is that they may be attacked at any time in Cabinda. I hope they will be cautious.”