3 September 2014

Africa Cup At Risk Over Ebola Fears

As the continent gears up for its African Nations Cup qualifiers, concerns are growing that the deadly disease could ruin the games. Some argue soccer players and fans from Ebola-hit countries could spread the virus.

The message from Africa's soccer governing body, the Confederation of African Football (CAF), was clear: Ivory Coast will be expelled from the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations if they refuse to host Ebola-hit Sierra Leone in their qualifier on Saturday (06.09.2014). CAF's statement prompted Ivory Coast to allow the match to be held in Abidjan after all. The Ivorian government said the decision was taken after Sierra Leone's federation had guaranteed that no member of its delegation had been in a country affected by the Ebola virus 21 days prior to the match.

In July, the Seychelles forfeited a game against Sierra Leone when it refused entry to Sierra Leone's soccer team amid fears players could carry the virus.

With group stages set to begin on Friday, fear of Ebola has increased among the 28 participating countries. In addition to sharing their love and enthusiasm for the sport, soccer players and fans could help spread the virus.

African fans hope the games will proceed as planned

Ivory Coast borders Ebola-stricken Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. So far, Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people - and it's unclear how many more have been infected.

Last year's Africa Cup winner Nigeria has also been affected by fears: Ever since the first Ebola cases were reported in Nigeria's business hub Lagos, concerns about an Ebola outbreak have increased. Lesotho decided to pull out of a final 2015 African Youth Championship qualifier against Nigeria.

Fear at play?

They decided to pull out even though the game was scheduled to take place in Kaduna, which is over a thousand kilometers (621 miles) away from Lagos, Nigerian sports journalist Shehu Saula told DW.

However, he understands that fear was at play. Players and spectators alike would have been concerned that they could contract the virus, he said.

At the beginning of August, CAF banned Guinea and Sierra Leone from hosting any international matches and moved them to Ghana instead.

"The affected countries understand the reasons why we had to take these initiatives," CAF spokesperson Erick Mwanza told DW. "The players of course know they are losing the advantage of playing at home and the fans would not have the opportunity to watch their stars, but it is in their best interests. We would rather not take any risks which might expose the players and the fans to any potential dangers."

It's also in the players' interest as many of Guinea's and Sierra Leone's national team members play for foreign clubs - such as Ibrahima Traore who plays for German soccer club Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Africa Cup at risk

If Ebola cannot be contained quickly, sports journalist Saula says the Africa Cup tournament in Morocco in about five months will be at risk.

"We either shift the tournament to a [later] date when we have eradicated or at least reduced the Ebola epidemic to a minimum, or we will stand to host a tournament that many people will not attend or where the players will possibly play in a stadium that is half-empty," he said.

Africa's soccer governing body had to implement drastic measures for the championship in Morocco, he added.

Nigeria has increased screening measures

Nigeri's Bauchi State Football Association Chairman Saidu Tanimu said "Nigeria should make sure that anybody going out to watch the tournament should not come from the affected community and anybody who is found to have any sign of symptoms of that disease should not be allowed to travel out."

Host country Morocco should also screen for Ebola at airports. "And anybody who has the sign of the symptoms of that disease should not be allowed to enter the country."

It's a major challenge for Morocco - but so far, the kingdom has shown "solidarity" with Ebola-hit nations: it's the last country to maintain regular scheduled flights to these countries.

"This step is through solidarity and is not commercial, reflecting the kingdom's constant commitment to Africa," Royal Air Morocco spokesman Hakim Challot said.

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