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James Lawton: As stricken Togo goalkeeper fights for survival, a symbol of hope is born

Beyond the trauma unit and the screen of green trees, the row rages on. But then as far as Kodjovi Obilale, who is hooked up to a ventilation machine, is concerned, it might be happening on another planet.

He has the simple imperative to live -- and perhaps one day discover with some wonderment how it was he became nothing less than a symbol of both the anguish and the hope of a continent which sees sport not as a problem but deliverance.

First there is the anguish -- and the anger. South African President Jacob Zuma has joined the argument, denouncing the idea that there is a link between the terrorist outrage 1,300 miles away in Angola and fears for the safety of next summer's World Cup.

The nation's police commissioner, Bheki Cele, is also indignant, along with Danny Jordaan of the South African Football Association. They are saying that their situation is being damned without proper analysis, that although they have crime at worrying levels, they do not have collective anarchy or terrorism. They have problems, certainly, but not uniquely and not insurmountably -- and they point to a largely trouble-free record when hosting front-line sports events.


Yet despite what many feel, the unfair reach of the connection between these two nations and the drama of Obilale's fight for survival taking place in Johannesburg, is undoubtedly making a strange fusion of the arguments. And there is emerging a palpable and passionate hope that the stricken goalkeeper will be healed in their own country.

In all of this, at Milpark Hospital, there is only one significant question. No one can change the world and reduce its risks. No one can know where the terrorists will strike next and for whom the ambulance bells will be ringing. What they can do, though, is win the battle they are fighting in one of the 30 trauma berths in a unit well versed in the effects of gunfire. They can save the life of the 25-year-old Obilale, the Togolese reserve goalkeeper who logically but with huge irony was flown to this city notorious for random violence.

The decision was logical because Milpark has a superb reputation. Included in its patient list over the years are Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Now it is the unheralded goalkeeper, who was eking a living in the fourth division of France before two bullets entered his back on a country road last week, who is the centre of all the attention.

His visitors this week have included Mandela's former wife, Winnie and various luminaries of the African National Congress and Sports Minister Dr Makhenkesi Stofile.

The visits are more than anything symbolic gestures. Yesterday morning he remained on a ventilator but a spokeswoman, speaking for the team of surgeons who have been ordered by the South African government not to give one-on-one interviews, insisted that this does not mean that progress isn't being made.

"He is stable and reacts to commands but the decision of the doctors is that it is better for him if he remains on the ventilator and is sedated," said the spokeswoman. "We are very hopeful."

Around about the time President Zuma was declaring his faith in South African security, the surgeons were making a practical decision.

It was that whatever of Kodjovi's life they are able to rescue, including the possibility of his one day playing football again, he will be obliged to carry for ever some evidence from the day his life was changed: bullet fragments in his abdominal cavity.

Professor Ken Boffard, one of the surgeons, explained: "We have treated the major injury. There is no point in removing the pieces of the bullet because it will cause more damage as surgeons would have to make a cut to get them out. The bullet is not going to move and he can live with it."

No doubt he would be grateful for that -- just as South Africa, while acknowledging that it has daunting statistics on individual crimes of violence, believes that its ability to mount effective security in the protection of visitors to high-profile sports events should be respected.

President Zuma insists there is no link between Angola and South Africa, no more than Spain or England when they suffered bomb outrages. "South Africa remains 100pc ready to host the Cup," declared the president.

Cele, the police commissioner, also drew a parallel with the outrages in Spain and England -- and also insisted that the security loophole exploited in Angola (by the Togo team going it alone, off the official radar) would not have been available under South African measures.

He said: "When it happened in Angola we noted that the gaps that could have been noticed were closed in South Africa. We are really fine."

Cele also attacked the decision to withdraw the Togo team. "The final instruction was 'you will play, but not under the flag of Togo'. They were disowned. It gives credence to terrorism when officials succumb. I would have loved them to continue. There is a history of sport and terrorism."

The police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, maintained a united front, saying, "It is just unfair to judge South Africa's preparedness to host the world on the fragility of the situation in Angola."

Such certainties, inevitably, seemed rather remote at Milpark Hospital, where the flow of celebrity visitors is now being discouraged against the priority of the watchful, distraction-free care of Obilale.

The last word from inside the trauma team came from Professor Boffard, who said that the patient was stable and generally satisfactory.

He said: "The medical team is satisfied with the progress of Mr Obilale. He will however remain in the trauma intensive care unit until he is fully out of danger."

'Fully out of danger'. It would be an announcement guaranteed a surge of celebration through the antiseptic corridors of a hospital which, according to an official statement of perhaps unconscious irony, is dealing with a once obscure victim of wounds which it does not find 'uncommon'.

Indeed, the celebration would be the kind that was not so long ago reserved for a successful and unbloodied World Cup.

This is, of course, another and rather more complicated story. In the meantime, Kodjovi Obilale has come to represent more than just one man's fight for a clean bill of health. (© Independent News Service

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