Friday’s sobering terrorist attack on the Togo national football team has numbed anticipations of an enthralling African Cup of Nations – even considering the excitement the opening game provided. The continent’s dress-rehearsal for a summer of sensational international football threatens to cast a shadow over the main event South Africa.
The African Cup of Nations in Angola looked well-poised to provide an early showcase of the pace, power and cultural passion that African players and communities famously have for the game. That optimism has been replaced with grave concerns for the welfare of the players. An analysis of the context behind the attack not only suggests that the tournament in Angola was a house built on sand – it also allays misguided fears that the same threat will be transferred to South Africa.
The incident, which claimed the lives of the assistant coach, a media officer and the driver, was not just a horrifying episode for the Togo team – it was also a blow for the Angolan people. Having been afflicted by a 27-year-long civil war, hosting the African Nations offered the country an opportunity to resuscitate national unity and regional integration. Giving Angola the tournament was an optimistic feel-good decision. But as we learn more about the history of Cabinda, the area where the Togo bus was shot upon, it appears to be an increasingly naive and misguided choice. The small enclave, just 1% of Angola’s land mass, is home to those responsible for Friday’s shootings. Despite a fragile ceasefire made two years ago with the main separatist group FLEC (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda), splinter groups continue to push aggressively for independence from Angola. The reason why this will never be granted is exactly the same reason why Angola can afford to host the championships and why the government refuses to drop the venue – Cabinda is an extraordinary concentration of wealth – its oil makes up 80% of Angola’s economy. Thus the very area that finances the tournament also threatens to collapse it. Simply put, no Cabinda venue would equal no tournament in Angola. By appointing the championships to Angola, CAF (Confederation of African Football) have made an intensely dangerous rod for their own backs.
The splinter group claims the oil-rich land as their own and are aggrieved that they receive none of the substantial profits. As we have seen, they will kill to see their demands granted. With this is mind, the Angolan Prime Minister’s recent protestation that “Cabinda is a province like any other in Angola,” is a vacuous statement. Quite why CAF were willing to ignore this considerable elephant in the room is remarkable – especially when there are so many other peaceful African states who need an injection of financial and developmental aid every bit as much as Angola. With the Cabinda venue the financial axis for the cup of nations and seemingly immune from expulsion, we can expect at least nine scheduled group games to go ahead there. The show will go on but it will be hard to stomach – sportsmen are supposed to journey to a stadium full of exhilaration, not fear, and to cross the line with excitement not trepidation. The sooner the Group B games and quarter final in Cabinda are completed, the sooner the tournament in Angola can focus on what it originally flattered to be – a festival of frenetic football. Last night’s opening match, an epic 4-4 draw between Angola and Mali, proves that the continent’s footballing heart beats just as passionately now as it did before Friday’s regrettable episode.
While it is entirely understandable for club managers to be concerned for their players in Angola (especially players representing Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso), such reservations should respect borders. Yet, Hull manager Phil brown has made the erroneous generalisation that if security is weak in one part of Africa, then it probably is everywhere else: “This throws a question mark against next summer’s World Cup. You simply cannot put the safety of players at the slightest risk.” If we follow this logic, the touring English cricket team should consider taking the first plane back to Heathrow. The reason such an action hasn’t even been posed to Andrew Strauss’ men is quite simple – South Africa is a massive 2 000 miles away from Angola – in terms of struggles with splinter-groups over oil, it may as well be whole galaxy away. South Africa has its own individual history and un-related security concerns – they should be analysed separately. Mentioning them in the same breath as the attacks in Cabinda smacks of ignorance and an unfair smear on what is still set to be a scintillating summer of football.