African show was right to continue
The world of football made the right choice in response to the horrific terrorist gun attack on the Togo team bus a few days before the start of the African Nations Cup. It decided the show must go on. It decided that a prestige football tournament should be played even as the goalkeeper of the Togo team lay seriously wounded in hospital. This was how it had to be.
Two officials of the Togo team were killed in the attack, along with the driver of the bus, while players such as Emmanuel Adebayor of Manchester City were left brutally shocked.
Yet there were few voices demanding that the tournament be abandoned. Instead, a wider resolve swiftly grew that the best policy was to continue with the matches and the competition.
That was evident not just in the host nation Angola and the continent of Africa – which also has the honour of hosting this year’s World Cup – it was also the case across Europe, where most of the African professionals play their club football, and where there has been long-term hostility to the timing of this biennial tournament.
Modern football clubs, in wealthy nations, need little excuse or reason to be motivated by purely selfish interests. This time, however, only a handful in Italy and England talked about the pressing need to bring their players home to safety. Most clubs, to their credit, did not. The immediate reaction of the majority was to behave responsibly and declare their faith in decisions made by the organisers of the tournament.
Most understood the practical, political and emotional necessity that life must continue as normally as possible in the wake of a terrorist atrocity. And this applies to football, and to all of sport, as much as it does in any other walk of life.
What terrorists try to create is fear. The best weapon against them is not to be fearful, however hard that may be.
The African Nations Cup did exactly that. The African Nations Cup refused to be cowed by the gunmen. The African Nations Cup refused to switch matches away from the troubled province of Cabinda – where the fatal shootings occurred – and the exclave for which this terrorist group wants to gain secession from the state of Angola.
Some argued that the attack proved Angola was an inappropriate place to hold an international sports event. Right or wrong, that is a different matter, a different question.
The unfortunate and plain truth is that terrorism can happen anywhere on Earth in the 21st century.
Bag searches, X-ray scanners and massive security operations are a fact of life at all major sports events, in nations rich and poor, large and small. We accept their intrusion because we don’t want sport to be stopped by fear.
In the wake of the Togo attack there was an eloquent and intelligent response from Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. They were important words.
“I don’t like the culture of fear, I hate that,” Wenger said, when asked if the competition should be cancelled.
“When people say it should be stopped, is it a real issue over security, or is it just being selfish?
“Here in Europe, we are not in the best position to judge security matters. We won’t be asking FIFA to release our players. I don’t believe you can stop a competition for any incident – because that would be a reward. It would mean any competition could be stopped at any time.”
Exactly. If a sports event were to be unnecessarily abandoned in fear of terrorism, the consequence would be to make many more sports events potential targets.
The wider world of sport is facing up to this. Fifteen months ago the England cricket team continued a tour of India in the aftermath of the monstrous Mumbai hotel massacres.
In the wake of the gun attack on their bus, the Togo team withdrew from the Nations Cup. This was wholly understandable and reasonable. Yet within their squad many of the footballers wanted to remain at the event and to play in honour of those who lost their lives.
The emotional response of individuals will vary and each person has to make their own choice. No sportsman must ever be forced onto the field of play against their will.
But sport, and football, as the world’s favourite game, must have a general policy to deal with incidents of terrorism. And this must surely be that the game does not buckle, that it does not abandon itself to fear.
In a World Cup year, this must be understood and accepted everywhere as the legacy of how football came to terms with the horror of the gun attack on the Togo team bus. l