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War games spark flood of ignorance

It is a joy to be a professional footballer, and an honour to represent your country. It is a unique lifestyle, but even so, there are some things you just never expect to have to deal with.

The African Cup of Nations is due to begin today. On Friday, as the Togo team bus was crossing the border into Angola from the Republic of Congo, they were ambushed by rebels, said to be acting on behalf of the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda.

Machine guns opened fire for over a half an hour, injuring several people. Tragically, three are reported to have died: the team's assistant coach, their press officer, and the bus driver.

The knee-jerk reaction seems to be to call into question the wisdom of hosting this year's World Cup in South Africa. The same concerns were raised in 1999 prior to the commencement of the U20 World Cup finals in Nigeria. I was there as part of the Ireland squad, and from the moment we landed, we couldn't help wondering why the hell it was staged there at all.

Upon our arrival, we were not allowed leave the airport by the police because it was after dark. Though they were fully armed, they said they were not prepared to accompany us along the main highway to our hotel. The area was notorious for attacks similar to that which occurred on Friday, and apparently we would not have been expected to complete the short journey unscathed. We stayed at the airport hotel for the evening as a result.

During our stay, we were not allowed to leave the hotel under any circumstances. The Saudi Arabian, Mexican and Australian squads were staying in the same place as us, so armed guards were stationed at each end of every hotel floor.

We were given police escorts everywhere. Initially, it seemed excessive travelling to training each day with sirens blaring and police vans in front and behind us, but when we learned of the risks involved, we quickly understood.

With very little room to manoeuvre because of the security restrictions, it was incredibly boring. I picked up the local newspaper one afternoon and read with horror of an attack which had happened the previous day on the stretch of road we were due to travel on when we first arrived at the airport. A group had been ambushed, robbed and killed. Their bodies were dismembered and decapitated.

For a variety of reasons, that tournament in Nigeria was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It was chaos from start to finish. I remember hearing the Nigerian team bus was attacked by locals following a poor result. The team bus was stoned as they left the ground. When the locals realised there weren't enough stones to go around, those without showed remarkably quick thinking by urinating into their empty drinks containers and throwing them instead.

Manchester City's Emmanuel Adebayor was on the Togo bus when it was attacked, and several other Premier League players are due to compete over the next few weeks. Every manager questioned has put the wellbeing of their players before anything else, and hoped that regardless of how the remainder of the tournament is affected, they return safely.

Togo withdrew their squad yesterday, and called for other countries to do the same. As for the suitability of South Africa to host the World Cup, it is ignorant to assume that events in one part of a continent have any bearing on another.

However, Phil Brown, who has two of his players in Angola at the moment, was quick to link the two. As the search for the phantom woman he saved from suicide a few months ago continues, the Hull City manager once again opened his mouth without engaging his brain.

Though London has been the target for terrorist attacks on many occasions, I've never once heard Brown raise fears about bringing his players there.


Sunday Independent