*This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of World Soccer.
A growing angst over the Ebola epidemic, and the potential ramifications if the virus is
to spread from its epicentre in west Africa, has had a sudden and potentially drastic impact on the continent’s game, not least January’s upcoming African Nations Cup finals in Morocco.
On the advice of a report from their health ministry, the Moroccan government has called for the postponement of the finals, fearing a possible spread of the disease in the kingdom from the arrival
of fans for the 16-team tournament.
There have been no reported cases of the virus in Morocco to date and on the surface, the postponement request is quite drastic. But it does, however, reflect a rapidly growing concern as the World Health Organisation predicts the situation will get worse before it gets better.
By the time the finals organisers meet with Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou on November 3 there will have been more time for reflection and analysis of the situation before some hard bargaining is presumably entered into. But should the Moroccans insist, there is little CAF could likely do, even though they have already indicated they intend to dig in their heels.
Hayatou and his executive committee will meet the day before to discuss a possible postponement, but their immediate reaction to the Moroccan government’s announcement was to make it clear they had never before changed or postponed the dates of any previous finals tournaments since the first African Nations Cup in 1957.
French media reported that Hayatou had put in an emergency call to South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan to put his country on possible standby, but South Africa has little appetite to host the event again, having done so last year in place of Libya.
The impact of the epidemic on football has been hardest felt in Sierra Leone and Guinea, where the death toll from the deadly haemorrhagic fever continues to mount.
Both countries are banned indefinitely from hosting any international matches, meaning they have forfeited home advantage in the qualifying tournament.
Morocco, ironically, have been offering Guinea an alternative venue and the Guineans have already hosted two qualifiers in Casablanca – a 2-1 win over Togo in September and a 1-1 draw with Ghana in October – plus an African Under-17 Championship qualifier at the Stade Mohamed V.
But Sierra Leone were not as fortunate to find a country willing to host their “home” games and instead they ceded home advantage to the Democratic Republic of Congo in September and Cameroon in October.
Although initially not given much chance in a tough group, the added disadvantage means they continue a cycle of mediocre results with little hope of eventually emerging out of the pack.
In Lubumbashi, their players were subjected to taunts from the crowd. “It’s been terrible for us, very hard,” says Kei Kamara, a Sierra Leonean striker who plays for Columbus Crew in the USA. “We’ve been called ‘Ebola’ whenever we are in another country. People stay away from us when they discover our nationality. People are not properly educated, but I don’t blame them.
“These countries know almost all our players come from teams in Europe, yet they bring doctors to our hotels, make us pass tests twice a day. You feel hounded. It is totally disrespectful.”
Cameroon imposed preventative and primitive quarantine on the visitors. Two Sierra Leone federation officials and three travelling journalists were ordered by the local police commissioner not to leave their hotel and attend the qualifier because they were “not on the official delegation list”.
Sierra Leone came through the preliminary rounds ahead of the group phase of qualification after Seychelles refused to allow them into the country in August, having them taken off a Kenyan Airways plane in Nairobi before the final leg of their trans-continental trip. Seychelles forfeited the tie on the orders of their health officials.
Liberia, which had born the brunt of the Ebola virus casualties, is also banned from hosting any international matches by CAF but is currently not participating in any competition. Football in the country has been put on hold to ensure there is no spread of the disease.
By Mark Gleeson