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Afcon 2015 and the impact of Ebola

posted by: December 8th, 2014


Should the Confederation of African Football have postponed the 2015 African Cup of Nations?

African football raises its fair share of challenges. Hosting a 16 nation tournament can be a difficult task for many African countries. Hosting a tournament in the midst of the biggest Ebola outbreak the world has seen is however, a challenge none have faced before.

With the draw concluded on Wednesday night the headlines leading up to African Cup of Nations 2015 won’t simply surround the Group of death including Algeria, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa or defending champions Nigeria as well as Egypt’s failure to qualify; but rather focus on the Ebola health crisis.

Since the Ebola virus first hit West Africa in the first quarter of 2014, the entire continent has been thrown into panic. Africa and indeed the entire world are now fully focused and determined on containing and beating the deadly epidemic. Three West-African nations, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been the worst hit countries. The latest World Health Organisation (WHO) report dated 29 November 2014 stated that 6,928 people were known to have died from Ebola. More than 16,000 have been infected. Guinea, who has qualified for Afcon 2015, has lost almost 1,200 lives. Guinea were forced to play their home matches during the qualification campaign in Morocco who ironically were stripped of the hosting rights after calling for the tournament to be postponed. Equatorial Guinea, a small central African nation, has subsequently been selected as the host of the 2015 showpiece.

Were Morocco’s deep concerns and ultimate stance reasonable? Has the Confederation of African Football (CAF) made the correct decision? These are a few of the questions many African football supporters and administrators will be asking in the build up to Afcon 2015.

Football governance seems to have raised many ethical questions in the recent past. The FIFA World Cup 2018 and 2022 bidding process concerns have been well documented in recent months. Afcon 2015 is a different issue altogether, yet CAF are proving they too have little respect for ethical or humanitarian considerations.

Morocco’s Minister of Youth and Sports, Mohamed Ouzzine, said in an interview post CAF revoking their hosting rights: “Our concern is the health of Africa, and based on WHO reports and guidelines, we have to listen.”

Morocco’s’ concern is fully justified. Many countries have imposed strict travel restrictions due to the virus. During a health crisis as severe as this where travelling across borders in the region of the affected areas is expected to be limited, the African Nations Cup will require and attract the exact opposite.

In comparison to the Moroccan minister’s statement, it perhaps comes as little surprise CAF’s concern surrounds finances. “The financial damage and the consequences for Caf and its marketing partners would be too severe to call it off,” Caf executive committee member Constant Omari told French radio on November 10.

The important question therefore becomes; How prepared is Equatorial Guinea to host this tournament and deal with the risks resulting from Ebola? Before we even evaluate this it must be highlighted that Equatorial Guinea was expelled from the tournament during the qualification process for fielding an ineligible player. This makes the decision to award them the hosting rights all the more questionable.

Equatorial Guinea is an oil rich nation however about three quarters of the population live below the poverty line according to the IMF. A large percentage of the population also have no access to clean drinking water according to the United Nations. The country co-hosted Afcon 2012 with Gabon and it is difficult to argue that the lives of ordinary citizens have improved since then. As expected, oppositions to the President have expressed disdain and raised severe concerns with hosting this specific tournament.

It is essential to note that Equatorial Guinea is in fact Ebola-free with no reported cases of the disease to date. Many outside Africa fail to realise the disease is predominantly constrained to the three West African nations Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. However this is not where the risk lies. The fundamental issue will be the increased travelling as thousands of visitors flock from all over Africa and beyond to witness the 30th edition of the African Cup of Nations.

Equatorial Guinea has been somewhat proactive in dealing with the Ebola virus since it first emerged. They have spent large sums of money and have received aid from the WHO to fight the virus. Furthermore they have recruited 50 Cuban doctors, and three isolation centres to house people suspected of having the disease will be set up before the Afcon tournament starts. According to International SOS, Equatorial Guinea are “denying entry to travellers whose journeys originated in countries affected by Ebola.” Will they relax this for Afcon 2015 or will they refuse entry to the many Guinean supporters who will want to follow their nation to the tournament? In August the government temporarily suspended the issuance of visas from neighbouring countries and cancelled regional flights by its national air carrier, Ceiba International, as preventative measures against Ebola.

Worryingly On the 29th August, Senegal reported its first case of Ebola as a young man from Guinea had travelled to Senegal despite having been infected with the virus, officials said. What guarantee do the citizens of Equatorial Guinea and the thousands of travelling football fans have that this will not occur again? As we are aware, Guinea will be present at the tournament.

The circumstances surrounding Afcon 2015 and the Ebola virus is a challenge far more important than football itself. There seems to be a strong case for the organisers to have postponed the tournament. Three African Nations have suffered despair and their economies crippled. The health of African citizens should be the top priority irrespective of any budgets, contracts or sponsors. The Afcon tournament historically is an ecstasy of colour, culture, dance and a showpiece for the best footballers the continent has to offer. All of Africa is hoping this will once more be the case during the 2015 tournament. Should the Ebola virus rear its head in Equatorial Guinea come January 2015, CAF’s credibility and reputation will likely also be infected with a strain very difficult to cure.