Cup of Nations on the edge of possibility and sanity after being abandoned by Morocco

In July this year, Equatorial Guinea was found guilty of fielding an ineligible player, the Cameroon-born Thierry Fidieu, in a Cup of Nations preliminary round match. As punishment, the nation was expelled from the tournament. On Friday, however, the nation was named as host of the upcoming competition and – presumably – reinstated, although there is no official confirmation of that. Such is the advantage of being an oil-rich state in the world of African soccer.

The tournament should have been held in Morocco, but last month, the Moroccan government announced its decision to withdraw from hosting the Cup of Nations because of fears over Ebola – fears which have already led to the suspension of domestic soccer in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to those three national teams being banned from playing in their home countries. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) at first prevaricated, eventually deciding it would take a final decision at a pre-arranged meeting on Nov. 3. In the week before that meeting, the likeliest outcome seemed that Morocco would still host the tournament, albeit one delayed until 2016.

That was not an ideal solution, but it was possible, and without too much disruption. In recent years CAF had changed the scheduling of the tournament from being in every even-numbered year, as it was from 1968 to 2012, to odd-numbered years beginning in 2013, a solution that avoided hosting every other tournament four months before a World Cup. The small window placed an unfair strain on players and led to many nations who had qualified for the World Cup using the Cup of Nations effectively as a warm-up rather than as a competition worth winning on its own. 2016, though, is not a World Cup year.

But then, on Nov. 2, something changed, and whispers out of CAF said the tournament would start as scheduled, on Jan. 17. That implied one of two things had happened: Either Morocco had reconsidered its position, or an alternative host had presented itself.

FBL-MAR-BEN-FRIENDLY

Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

“Hayatou! You don’t care about our SECURITY. We don’t care about PENALTIES. Long life to Morocco.”

 

Coming to grips with Morocco

The next day CAF issued a statement essentially pleading for time. It asked Morocco to clarify its position by Nov. 8 and said it would make a final decision on Nov. 11. Though its reasons were not immediately clear, the Moroccan government confirmed it was unwilling to host the tournament in 2015.

It’s true that Morocco has a tourist industry to protect. In 2013, it attracted 10 million foreign visitors, according to its tourism ministry, so there is perhaps a cosmetic issue: a need to be seen as clean that goes beyond the actual threat. Because really, that threat is minimal. Of the three countries seriously afflicted by Ebola, Liberia and Sierra Leone are almost certain not to qualify for the Cup of Nations. Guinea is extremely unlikely to do so.

Even if Guinea were to qualify, how difficult would it be to vet its touring party? Twenty-three players, and maybe as many officials and journalists – 50 or so, total. Travelling fans? There simply aren’t many for the Cup of Nations and never have been, a matter of cost, logistics, a lack of disposable income and a culture of consuming games on television or radio rather than in person. In the past, CAF has ludicrously claimed the tournament attracts up to 400,000 visitors, figures that are seized upon by the host nations as it allows hotels and transport companies to ramp up bills. Recently, CAF has admitted that it’s unlikely more than 1000 fans will travel to wherever the 2015 tournament is hosted. It even claimed it had given Morocco the option of banning travelling fan entirely.

CAF’s reasons for insisting the tournament go ahead in January are threefold. The first issue is finance. “Once you postpone this event, it will open the door for everybody to ask for a delay of any competition and we will no longer be credible and cannot organize anything,” CAF president Issa Hayatou told France 24 this week. “We will hurt our sponsors and partners. Everyone will say we are not ready and finally it is CAF that will pay the piper.”

The second is credibility. “You know, we have a problem with French clubs which will not release our players if we move the Africa Cup of Nations,” Hayatou went on.

And the third is pride. The Cup of Nations was established in 1957 as a direct response to what CAF saw as Africa’s under-representation at the World Cup. In that sense, the tournament stands as an expression of African self-reliance – one reason CAF has resisted numerous calls to make the tournament once every four years (as the European Championship, Copa America and Asian Cup are). Over the past fortnight, Hayatou repeated again and again that CAF has never, in 57 years, postponed the Cup of Nations. Not for disease. Not for war or political upheaval. Rightly or wrongly, he sees it as a point of principle that the tournament goes on.

Given how much Morocco has invested in soccer infrastructure and how it has promoted itself as a soccer nation – it lost out to South Africa in the bidding to host the 2010 World Cup, hosted the Club World Cup last year and is scheduled to do so again this year – it seems a bizarrely radical step to back out, all the more so as Guinea has played its two ‘home’ qualifiers so far in Casablanca and will play its third, against Uganda, there next Wednesday.

In that regard, CAF’s frustration is understandable, as its basic point: that it, rather than a host, is the body that should decide if a tournament goes ahead or not. Under CAF’s statutes, Morocco will face a $50,000 fine for withdrawing and, almost certainly, far greater claims for compensation (a figure of $150 million has been suggested). There is also the prospect of a substantial ban that would extend to Moroccan club sides and the nation in continental competition. CAF could also petition FIFA to suspend Morocco from World Cup qualifying; what that would mean for next month’s Club World Cup is at this stage unclear.

On Nov. 10, CAF confirmed Morocco’s withdrawal, announcing the national team had also been expelled from the 2015 competition. That again as logical – Morocco, after all, hasn’t competed in the qualifying process and must have realized that withdrawing almost certainly meant missing the tournament.

Ivory Coast captain Didier Drogba greets

FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

African soccer, pushed to its edge

The following day, as everybody waited to learn who would host the tournament, CAF said it would reveal its decision in “two to three days” – a delay that didn’t make much sense, given the decision never seemed like a two-stage process. A year ago, perhaps, it would have been legitimate to decide against a postponement and then for viable alternatives, but two months before the tournament, the question was surely more urgent. If it’s not in Morocco, is there anywhere else that can realistically step in at such short notice? It’s hard to believe even one country’s ready, yet CAF insisted it was choosing between three.

It refused to say who those bids were from, though it appears CAF approached seven nations. Nigeria also volunteered, despite concerns about whether it could cope with staging such an event so close to next year’s presidential elections. South Africa, Ghana, Egypt and Angola all ruled themselves out, which effectively leaving Gabon and Equatorial Guinea as the only realistic candidates.

“Following fraternal and fruitful discussions” between Hayatou (above, right) and Equatorial Guinea president Obiang Nguema, CAF announced, an agreement was reached. And so, the day before the penultimate qualifiers kick off, and 64 days before the tournament is schedule to start — with Ebola still a major concern – we finally know where the tournament will be held.

Four host cities will host games. Malabo, the capital, as well as Bata, the nation’s largest city, were host venues in 2012, when the Equatorial Guinea co-hosted with Gabon. Mongomo, the president’s hometown, which now features an enormous basilica, is on the list, as is the far northeast city of Ebebyin, where the stadium is rudimentary.

Whether it’s possible to put on a tournament in such a short space of time is debatable, and, in a sense, one thing in Equatorial Guinea’s favor is that getting there and securing a visa is so difficult, the tournament’s unlikely to attract many travelling fans or journalists. Some infrastructure is still in place from three years ago, too.

Ultimately, Hayatou has got his wish. He will not be the first CAF president to have to postpone a Cup of Nations. But this is soccer on the edge: on the edge of Africa, on the edge of possibility, and on the edge of sanity.

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