Togo’s team caught in the crossfire

It was bad enough when the convoy of  Togo’s national football team was machine-gunned by a rebel army in Angola’s Cabinda Province as the team was traveling to the Cup of African Nations. Two staff members and the Angolan driver died. Several are still in the hospital and it seems clear that the whole team was traumatized by this tragedy.

But the spat that followed between the Togolese government and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had consequences that added insult to injury for the team. After some finger-pointing, and heated phone calls between the Togolese government and CAF officials, Togo’s President ordered the national team to come home. Saturday, the CAF issues a statement that Togo is banned from the next 2 CAN tournaments and imposed a fine of $50,000 on Togo’s team. CAF’s rationale for this decision is that the team had decided to play, but the Togolese government intervened and ordered them home. Political interference is a very touchy issue in African sports, where most national football federations depend on government funds, and the CAF has very strict rules prohibiting political meddling in CAF events.

However, neither the Togo’s Football Federation nor the CAF are renown for their diplomatic skill, and so it seems to me that some big egos on both sides got bruised in the aftermath of the tragedy in Cabinda, and now they are using the team in a stupid power play. Sadly, no one will win this game. Togo’s football functionaries managed, yet again, to get the Hawks into non-football related headlines and the CAF looks like a bunch of total jerks for punishing a team that was attacked on the way to a CAF event. AND they look stupid for issuing that press release a day before the CAN final. That way they had BOTH the tournament opener AND the final overshadowed by headlines that make them look bad.

Way to manage the image of African football.

The team and their staff and families meanwhile mourn those they lost. I am sure it causes them additional grief to be treated like this – as pawns in a powerplay of some bruised bureaucrat’s egos.

The BBC’s Pier Edwards has some interesting insight into one of those egos:

When I asked Caf President Issa Hayatou earlier this month whether he regretted bringing the Nations Cup to Angola following the Togolese tragedy, his answer was enlightening.

For the Cameroonian proceeded to explain that there was no real problem having only three teams in Group B after Togo’s withdrawal as it had happened before (when Nigeria withdrew from South Africa in 1996).

At that point, an aide came over to explain that the question had actually been about the deaths – whereupon Hayatou addressed the attack with little empathy.

BBC – Piers Edwards Blog – 30 January 2010

Seems like that is a pretty typical attitude among football functionaries – the players are just pawns, and it’s all “the show must go on.”

But maybe there are some football officials out there who can muster some empathy and will invite Togo to their regional tournament. One of the comments to Edward’s story points out that CONMEBOL has invited other nations to the Copa America. I personally think that – if this decision stands – UEFA would make a bold and very positive statement inviting Togo to the next Euro Cup. I know, I know … but a guy can dream, right?

P.S. – congratulations to Egypt … and congrats to the Black Stars for making the Pharaos sweat in the final :-)

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