Already causing catastrophic effects across West Africa, Ebola’s impact on one of the continent’s most beloved pastimes is set to be even more widespread. Soccer has long been a force to unite disparate factions of society across the region -- from its role in halting the civil war in Ivory Coast in 2005 to Nelson Mandela’s culmination of healing South Africa’s apartheid wounds with the 2010 World Cup. Yet it is exactly that power to bring people together, in strictly physical terms, that means soccer is also seen as such a threat during the devastating Ebola outbreak.
Fear of the epidemic widening has gripped countries, and Morocco has intimated that the risk from players and fans from across Africa descending on it for the continent’s flagship soccer tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, is one it is not prepared to take.
“We are talking about the Africa Cup of Nations where we are expecting between 200,000 to 400,000, even one million spectators to converge in Morocco,” Mohamed Ouzzine, Morocco’s youth and sports minister, said on Thursday. “I don't think there is any state or any country that has the necessary capabilities to monitor, check and control the current Ebola situation when faced with these numbers. This is our real problem. We don't have a problem with visiting teams, we have a problem with visitors.”
Having already asked the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to postpone the 16-nation tournament, currently set for January next year, it has now emerged that CAF is seeking out alternate venues. Ghana has revealed that it has been contacted about the possibility of stepping in, while South Africa was sent a similar inquiry, according to BBC Sport.
The concentration of the virus, which has so far taken the lives of almost 4,500 people, has been in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, none of which look likely to qualify for the Cup of Nations. Nigeria, the defending champion, has better prospects, but, while the country had 20 cases of Ebola, it has since contained its outbreak.
Although the scale of the impact on its most prestigious event remains unclear, African soccer has already been hit hard by the effects of Ebola. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have had bans from hosting games placed on them by CAF, with the latter suspending all matches in the country. During qualification for the Cup of Nations over the last two weeks, Sierra Leone played back-to-back matches in Cameroon. The reaction the visitors encountered showed an ugly human side to the epidemic as fear has bred discrimination. The Sierra Leone team, already subjected to opposition players hesitant to shake their hands and swap shirts, most painfully of all had “Ebola” chanted at them from the stands when facing Cameroon in the capital Yaoundé.
“You feel humiliated, like garbage, and you want to punch someone,” John Trye, Sierra Leone’s backup goalkeeper said. “No one wants to have Ebola in their country. Sierra Leone is struggling. And they shove it in our face. That’s not fair.”
Those are far from isolated incidents, as African players have been targeted for abuse and baseless rumors from across the globe. One of Africa’s most famous players, Michael Essien, who currently plays for AC Milan and previously starred with Chelsea and Real Madrid, felt compelled to post rebuttals accompanied with pictorial evidence on social media in response to claims that his absence from a match was due to being diagnosed with Ebola.
As continues to be the case with international governments, soccer’s governing bodies and club teams from across the world, where huge numbers of African players ply their trade, must balance making wise provisions and precautions with the risk of fueling hysteria. This has been a particular challenge in Spain, which recently saw the first person to test positive for Ebola in Europe. Some clubs have tried to request the return of their players from international commitments in Africa. Rayo Vallecano’s Lass Bangoura opted to head back to his club before playing for Guinea in Morocco, having been upset that his teammates in Spain were worried about him contracting Ebola.
English Premier League side Newcastle United, which has Senegal international Papiss Cisse and Ivory Coast regular Cheick Tiote on its books, has revealed that it will screen players returning from Africa this week.
“Well I think we’d be naïve not to have concerns and certainly we’ve got a strategy for when they return and making sure that they’re taken care of and their families are,” manager Alan Pardew said on Thursday.
Even without this latest concern, the Africa Cup of Nations has long been a target for animosity from club teams across Europe, with the tournament denying many of them the use of key players midway through the season every two years. Already with a sense that their premier competition is given little respect in soccer’s money making hotbed, Africa now faces a much greater challenge to defend its position. The coach of German heavyweight Borussia Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp, has become the first high-profile name to question whether the Africa Cup of Nations should be going ahead at all.
“I'm very concerned about Ebola,” he said. “I understand that politics shouldn't influence sports, but recently there have been a few things to worry about. “If a country has the feeling that they can't stage the tournament because of this, you have to take that seriously. You can't just say: 'It doesn't matter, nothing will happen.’ There will be a lot of fans in the stadiums, and only a few of those [stadiums] will have the maximum medical controls.”
Even before the Africa Cup of Nations, though, the continent and Morocco will be charged with the task of hosting a major soccer event. The FIFA Club World Cup, featuring the champions of six continents, takes place between Dec. 10 and Dec. 20 in Rabat and Marrakech and is currently expected to go ahead as planned. Still, while the risk appears far smaller for an event where most of the teams competing are not African and there will be few fans traveling from outside Morocco -- a country with no recorded cases of Ebola -- fear for those involved remains.
“My wife is seeing news every day about it and telling me not to go,” Gonzalo Prosperi, a defender for South American champions San Lorenzo told an Argentinean radio station this week. “We are scared. I think it's strange that there have been cases in neighboring countries but not there. It would be more believable if they [authorities] said there had been one or two cases than none at all," he said.