The Nations Cup: Stopping Ebola should be the first goal

SOCCER: Confederation of Africa Football (CAF) has given the green light for the international tournament to go forward in the face of an epidemic.

By Jorge Belon, Editor in Chief 

After multiple pleas from the Royal Moroccan Football Federation to postpone the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations until the Ebola epidemic is under control, the Confederation of Africa Football (CAF) has decided to go ahead, swinging open the door for the virus to possibly infect new nations as the Football International Federation Association (FIFA) watches from the sidelines.

“Mass gatherings pose unique risks to health security,” said Mona Yassin, a communication officer for World Health Organization (WHO). “Having large numbers of people in a small space can aid the spread of infectious diseases, lead to accidents and exceed the capacity of routine public health measures.”

With hundreds of thousands of Africans expected to attend in the raucous close quarters of a screaming, cheering stadium, the Morocco FF repeatedly advocated against holding the Nations Cup early next year (Jan. 17-Feb. 8, 2015), citing health concerns.

“We are talking about the Africa Cup of Nations, where we are expecting between 200,000 and 400,000, even 1 million spectators to converge in Morocco,” Moroccan Sports Minister Mohammed Ouzzine told The Guardian. “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.”

The CAF ignored Morocco’s request to delay the tournament, and on Oct. 28 confirmed their decision to stick with the original plans. Two days later, the North African nation mentioned they would withdraw from hosting the biggest and most important competition on African soil. By pulling out, Morocco is passing on revenue up to $11 million, according to the Times Live of Johannesburg.

“What’s the significance of the financial losses compared to human losses? A human being is priceless,” Ouzzine said.

Morocco faces possible punishment from CAF and FIFA for placing their priorities on human lives. The North African national team could possibly be suspended from international football competitions and their domestic league may get suspended as well.

However, the Morocco Football Federation has not been the only voice calling for postponement until the epidemic is neutralized. Soccer is not a full-contact sport as is American football, but there is plenty of action, including open scrapes and cuts, on the field. Some players have even expressed concern over even lower-impact contact that occurs off the field with every-day fans.

“It is risky. In Africa everyone is hugging you and shaking your hand,” Nigerian national team captain Vincent Enyeama told NBC Sports. “I really wish it doesn’t happen [at the African Nations Cup] with all the people that will be moving around, and what can you do? You’re at risk.”

In the world of international soccer, athletes from one country often play in another.  A Cameroon national may play for a club team in Denmark, and with people from every nation in Africa going to Morocco for the tournament, the chances of catching Ebola increases dramatically. Now what does the Cameroonian player bring back to his club team? Ebola, and now the Danes will join the ever-growing list of nations with citizens infected with the virus.

Without paying for a plane ticket, Ebola due to this tournament could potentially travel to every corner of the world. That includes the United States, since there are multiple African nationals in Major League Soccer.

This raises the question: why would the CAF be willing to risk so much for one tournament?

Now, with CAF making the final decision to go ahead and run the African Nations Cup early next year in a meeting on Monday, Nov. 3 morning in Algeria, they have left the Royal Moroccan Football Federation till Tuesday Nov. 11 to make the decision of whether they will host.

However, CAF is not wasting any time, as they have already asked several countries to possibly take the Moroccans’ place if they back out. South Africa and Tunisia have already said no to hosting, with Ghana and Egypt giving unenthusiastic responses to hosting.

Meanwhile, FIFA says it and the United Nations are in the fight together to put an end to Ebola. With CAF answering to FIFA as all the other six confederations do, they have the power to mitigate the impact of Ebola more than offering stadiums and money.

“Thanks to the continuous fruitful and fundamental collaboration between FIFA and the United Nations, today we can use the power of football to combat the Ebola epidemic,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter told, “to allay any concerns regarding the impact of the treatment units on the recently installed pitch.”

How convinced people are by Blatter’s words might depend on how much they know of his past actions. This is the same man who allowed the 2014 World Cup to be played in Brazil, a nation that clearly did not want the tournament. Brazilians were in turmoil with the government and their spending. Blatter also stood by as the nation of Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, when the working conditions for constructing the state-of-the-art stadium for the event toil in what can only be called modern-day slavery.

FIFA has the power to force the postponement of the African Nations Cup and relocate the Club World Cup, set to happen in December of this year in Morocco, to another continent because of the risk of possibly helping the virus get a stronger foothold in other nations and increasing the death toll from 5,000 to potentially a staggering number. FIFA could be the white knight for the first time in a long time.

However, considering its history, FIFA will most likely not decide to do that, which means the tournament is on. Regardless that the WHO also believes that the tournament should be pushed back, it will not and the tournament will proceed as planned

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