Can African Nations survive the gunfire? to showpiece
Callous attack on Togo team bus poses major threat
IT WAS meant to be a glorious start to African football's great year of sporting discovery, but the machine-gun attack on Togo's team bus has already seriously punctured one continent's dream and left the whole world of sport with the most nightmarish vision yet of its future.
Just as Sri Lanka's cricketers were desperately relieved to escape with their lives after an attack on their team bus in Pakistan last year, this time it is Togo's footballers, ranging from French League amateurs to one of the Premier League's biggest superstars, who must have woken today thinking "football is just not worth this."
"We were shot at like dogs," one player, Thomas Dossevi, reported after the carnage. "By men in balaclavas armed to the teeth." He looked round at his team-mates and officials and saw one flowing with blood and another with a bullet in his back. The driver had died, others were injured.
"We don't feel much like playing the cup now," he said. It sounded almost laughable. Of course not. It is impossible to see how any player out in Angola now will have the heart for competition.
And, of course, the world wanted to know what had happened to the star man, Emmanuel Adebayor. Good news. He was OK, the news finally emerged. Yes, but who knows what will happen next time? And there will be a next time, you can be sure. Top sportsmen have never been more vulnerable targets.
So, the desperate episode brings a whole new perspective to international sport. I had begun yesterday writing a paean of praise to the African Cup of Nations, reflecting on what a triumph it was that a nation like Angola, just seven years after finding peace following a 27-year civil war, should have rebuilt its shattered landscape on the back of its oil wealth and ended up hosting a 16-team festival to be beamed around the globe.
How empty that thought suddenly seems. Rather, you end up asking yourself why the African Confederation had allowed their showpiece event to be taken to such an unstable region, plagued by unrest, with human rights groups accusing the military of atrocities. Somehow, it was easy to forget this in the name of football.
The romantic in you always wants this competition to succeed. Down the years, it has always been a bit crazy and unpredictable and, in football's sanitised era, that had always seemed part of its attraction.
There is, after all, something gloriously defiant about an event which, in a sport where European pomp, power and wealth dominates, can still instil apoplexy in the world's leading football clubs as they helplessly watch prized assets departing for some uncontrollable adventure.
From now on, though, will any club be prepared to let them travel to trouble spots? No chance. More to the point, will players like Adebayor and Michael Essien, who profess how much it means to them to represent their countries and who were due to go head-to-head on Monday, be prepared to put their country before their own personal safety? You could hardly blame them if they weren't.
It will be intriguing to know how the Manchester City striker feels now. Interviewed prior to his departure for the tournament, he was asked whether he had any reservations about playing in Cabinda and gave a self-confident response. "No, we were born in Africa so we know what it's about," he said.
"African nations are getting better and better. We can't be like France, England or America tomorrow. Angola had a big, big war but today everybody is getting along better. They have good organisation and we hope everyone will enjoy it and come back safely. I'm going back to Africa, to one of the countries on my continent, and I'm prepared for Cabinda. I will enjoy myself."
Those words seem poignant now, but then one of the pleasures of the Nations Cup is to hear players like Ivorian Kolo Toure declare proudly: "You're going to play for your country, for your father, for your family, for your pride." Yes, but not for your life. We are reaching the point where privileged sportsmen are just going to turn their backs on any assignment with the slightest risk attached.
And what about the summer's World Cup? It's a different world, and the security will doubtless be suffocating in comparison to Angola's. Yet last night's dreadful happening means nothing can be taken for granted any more and big-time sport's new reality is to find itself in the firing line. (©Daily Telegraph, London)