Our post last week condemning CAF’s decision to ban Togo for two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments for withdrawing from this year’s event following the deadly attack on their team bus mirrored much of the world reaction: it saw the draconian punishment as rash, insensitive and wrong.
Not everyone agreed, though. Gabrielle Marcotti defended CAF for following the principle that governments should not interfere in sporting matters no matter the circumstances, as it was Togo’s government who reportedly made the final decision that Togo’s team should return home for three days of national mourning (CAF then took this as a de facto withdrawal from the tournament, even though Togo then said they wanted to return and play). I’ll cite Marcotti in full:
On the face of it, the decision seems ludicrous. You enter the Africa Cup of Nations, you get attacked by terrorists, watch as two of your delegation die before your eyes and withdraw from the tournament to mourn. And then comes the most stinging blow. You get banned for the next two tournaments by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
CAF’s announcement that Togo would not be allowed to enter the next two continental tournaments met howls of outrage. And, indeed, it is shocking, until you read CAF’s justification. Togo were banned not for withdrawing from the competition — given the circumstances, it would have been more than understandable — but because the decision to pull out was taken by the Togolese Government, which apparently overruled the players, who reportedly wanted to play.
And CAF, like Fifa and Uefa, has strict rules about government interference in sporting matters: the decision should have been made by Togo’s football association and it should have been final.
If this decision — however painful — is the first step in CAF standing up to government meddling in African football, then it is welcome. But if it fails to follow through the next time some local “strongman” starts giving “advice” to his FA or plunders the football coffers, then it will feel as if Togo are being singled out.
We criticised Marcotti for this piece on Monday, with one commenter strongly disagreeing and defending this position. Yet I’m still convinced this is a hasty and political decision by CAF themselves. And this would seem an extraordinary incident on which CAF should take such a first step, however worthwhile the principle, to ending “government meddling” in African football — this isn’t a case of squabbling over team selection or player bonuses or TV money, but a true tragedy that actually should make us pause and realise football is a game, and sometimes life, or mourning over the loss of it, should take precedence.
Here are several questions I’d have for Issa Hayatou, CAF’s chief, regarding it:
- Why was CAF’s decision to ban Togo announced before the tournament was even over, on the eve of the final itself? Was there no consideration given to CAF taking a full investigation into what had happened in Cabinda and after, and what role Togo’s government had exactly played in the return of the team to Togo? How could this decision have been reached so swiftly and abruptly, without any apparent input from Togo?
- Togo’s government themselves said CAF failed to contact them, even to offer sympathies, in the aftermath of the attack. Why was this the case? Wouldn’t communication between CAF and Togo’s government potentially have allowed them to find a mutually agreeable way for Togo’s team to leave, mourn and return?
- Did CAF, in the wake of the horrendously traumatic attack on Togo’s team, offer to delay Togo’s next game in order to give the team time to mourn?
- Relatedly, is CAF planning a full, independent investigation into who knew Togo were travelling by bus to Cabinda, and who accepted this arrangement?
Furthermore, it was clear from the conflicting statements coming from the players, team and government of Togo in the days after the tragedy that nobody was sure what to do or how to react, and whether the team should play or not. Never before has a football team faced such a swift decision in the aftermath of such tragedy, while a player’s life was still hanging in the balance. CAF has consistently shown a shocking lack of compassion for the position Togo’s players, through no fault of their own, found themselves in.
Togo national team coach Hubert Velud expressed his fury at Hayatou for the decision today: “It’s a scandal. This decision shocked us. I wonder on what logical basis such a decision was taken. Everyone knows that the morale of the players hit rock bottom after seeing death in Cabinda. It was impossible for them to play a football match.”
He went on to say he was particularly angry about Hayatou “because I realized that he’s an opportunist who serves his personal interests in the name of football. I’m more frustrated than you can imagine. Issa Hayatou should have taken into consideration the sentiments of the Togolese people before such a decision was taken. Hayatou proved that he’s not capable of running CAF, he should review himself.”
FIFA, of course, with Blatter facing reelection soon and needing CAF’s support, will do nothing. Hayatou will not do the decent thing and resign, I am sure, but perhaps at least the rest of Africa’s football associations will do the decent thing and kick him out at their next election.