Friday, February 12, 2010

The tragedy of Togo

The African Nations Cup, a continent-wide football tournament that sweeps through the football community every two years, is supposed to be one of the true revelations in the sport.

Forty years ago, African football was a joke, the players didn't understand the rules, they were routinely lambasted and turned into smoldering piles of disgrace by the world-renowned European and South American clubs. They weren't a part of the discussion. They weren't even on the radar.

But now, African football is alive. African football gives more than just laughter to the world now, although Arsenal's Emmanuel Eboue occasionally finds time, they give quality, speed, power, ferocity, and some of the finest footballers the world has seen. The African national teams are stacked now -- Michael Essien, Samuel Eto'o, Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba -- with world-renowned players who start for Champions League winners, Premier League winners, La Liga winners, and scatter throughout the line-ups of some of the biggest and most-successful clubs in football.

But in 2010, African football returned to the depths of the footballing world. The African Cup of Nations, a tournament so bright and vibrant, filled with splashes of yellow, red, and green, fans of all age, from all corners of the world, dazzling in brilliant costume and unwavering passion, who come together to celebrate their African heritage and their contributions to the beautiful game, was disgraced by the committee designed to run it: The Confederation of African Football (CAF).

The Togolese football team, the Sparrow Hawks in their shining yellow jerseys, was attacked, cut down riding buses to their very first game, by a group of masked men. It was right out of a movie, something so unbelievable that the players themselves could hardly find the words to describe the horror. Bullets pounded the buses for nearly 20 minutes as an armed security team, designed to protect the Togolese players, fired back. The players hid under the seats, those that weren't shot at least, and prayed for safety, thinking all they'd get in return was a premature death. They were targeted, for their money, for their fame, for the fear and terror that killing them could bring. Their bus driver was killed instantly. Another team official died. Many were wounded, including Serge Akakpo, a defender who plays his club football in Romania, who was shot twice and bled so much his teammates were sure he would die in their arms as they wept for help.

So when the Togo football team decided to pull out of the African Cup of Nations, people understood. You had to understand. The situation ... the fear, the heartbreak, the death ... was so much heavier than football. The tournament must go on, as they say, but the Togolese players needed time to process the destruction, to see their families, and to mourn the loss of two of their brothers.

Even more important, they didn't want to be attacked again; murdered in cold blood over a football match. With support from their prime minister, Gilbert Huongbo, they came home to Togo to find some semblance of peace and comfort outside of the terror they never should've been a part of anyway.

The CAF, however, disagreed.

In what has to be the most shocking decision in the history of football, the CAF decided to ban Togo from the next two ACONs after the team withdrew from the tournament.

I'll repeat that:

CAF is BANNING the Togolese football team from playing in the next two African Cup of Nations for withdrawing from the 2010 ACON after being attacked and watching their bus driver and teammates shot up like dogs.

Togo have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn the decision on Feb. 12. And if the CAS and FIFA have any pulse left to feel what humanity feels, not only will they reinstate Togo for all future ACONs, but will severely punish CAF for their political, selfish, and pathetic handling of the situation. CAF thought there was government influence that led to Togo's decision to withdraw, which led to their decision to ban the team for the next four years of competition. But so what? The Togolese government has every right to step in and protect its people, especially in such a brutally-public arena just 117 days before the World Cup hits South Africa. CAF has no right, they shouldn't even have sniffed around this one, to intervene in such a traumatizing situation.

When Lance Armstrong came back after beating cancer, was he banned from the Tour de France for having to withdraw from prior competitions to receive chemotherapy?

When a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games, was Israel banned from the next Olympic games?

Or what about the Georgian luger, rest in peace, who died on Feb. 12, 2010 after a training accident the day the Winter Olympics were set to begin in Vancouver. If Georgia decided to withdraw all other Georgian athletes from the tournament out of respect for their fallen teammate, would the IOC turn around and ban Georgia from the next Olympic games?

It's utter, utter madness.

General Seyi Memene, a vice-president inside CAF, said, "First of all, I am Togolese, so I pray to god that this sanction is lifted."

The disarray inside the Confederation of African Football is damning the people who deserve it the least.

Aside from the blatant answer of reinstatement, what can the CAF do to rectify the situation?

Give Togo the next African Cup of Nations. Make them the host country. Celebrate the people, celebrate the two men who lost their lives to blind ignorance and greed, celebrate the team. But most of all, celebrate Africa for all the good it has brought the rest of the world, both in football and in life. The resilience of the Togolese players, who discussed the ambush bravely to the media, who still vowed to play even though their hearts were pulling them back home, who came back to their clubs, exhausted, relieved, mournful, and jumped right back into their seasons, shows the passion and determination these players, these men, show on and off the field. It is a reflection of their people, a reflection of the pride they have for their countrymen, and it should be celebrated.

The Togolese people deserve it.

The Togolese players deserve it.

And most of all, African football deserves it.

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