Morocco withdrawals leaves AFCON in the balance

Having been a bubbling undercurrent throughout the qualification process to the impending African Cup of Nations, the Ebola crisis has now firmly assumed centre stage with Morocco seemingly opting against the hosting of January’s planned spectacle.

Given the life and death implications attached to the disease – current estimations suggest the loss of life is nearing 5,000 – discussing its impacts on a relatively nonsensical issue such as football appears mere insensitive egotistical analysis. Nonetheless taking a purely narcissistic viewpoint there is little denying that Morocco’s stance has plunged the imminent AFCON into a state of chaos, with the worst case scenario situation of the tournament being completely shelved now a genuine possibility.

Initially Morocco had been among the most understanding to the plight of those nations affected by the disease – predominantly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – with extensive screening procedures long in place across the country’s largest airports whilst Royal Air Maroc remained one of few airlines still operating in and out of impacted areas.

That being said, in concordance with several identified cases outside of Africa Morocco has grown uneasy with regards to hosting the event, with the North African nation’s Health Ministry indicating back in October a desire for the competition to be postponed. Those calls though have fallen on deaf ears with CAF persistently reiterating that the show will go on, yet Morocco’s silence in regards to confirming their position as hosts ultimately means that with little over two months until the planned date of commencement the tournament has plummeted into a state of disarray.

Given the perception that the AFCON presents an undeniable opportunity for widespread infection, Morocco’s decision appears to make logical sense. On the surface the prospect of thousands of individuals transitioning into the North African country from across the continent simply represented a risk to great – particularly when Ebola’s symptoms can go undetected for up to 21 days, thus meaning even the most prudent screening processes cannot be labelled watertight.

However, the notion is that the Moroccan authorities have been caught up in a tidal wave of recent hysteria surrounding the disease – the development of cases outside of the continent has seen the western world finally realise that Ebola is not merely an issue exclusive to Africa. There is a sense that Morocco’s hand has been severely influenced by the West’s frantic response to its own ignorance, rather than calculating the situation the uneasy hosts have arguably acted on the side of haste.

A more rational approach might have been hanging fire until qualification concludes, given there is feasibility that none of the nation’s affected will even be gracing the continent’s premier competition – Sierra Leone and Liberia are both mathematically out of the equation whilst should Guinea lose in Togo next weekend they would also be resigned to elimination.

In all the doomsday forecasting it should also be noted that evidence indicates the disease can be managed, with Nigeria – who have successfully negotiated the identification of a case on their shores to be a fortnight ago declared an Ebola free zone – the primary example of that being accomplished.

For all the talk of the tournament generating extensive movement of people – a viewpoint born out of the idyllic image of major sporting events – the AFCON in the main doesn’t encapsulate significant visiting numbers, with the scale of the continent as big of a reason as any for that. It would be unwise to suggest the event will not attract visitors, however with the right prevention methods in place a number which should not be considered unmanageable.

Since Morocco’s initial anxiety CAF had been murmuring regarding possible alternative hosts, with the likes of Egypt, Tunisia, Angola, Nigeria and Ghana all being mooted as potential replacements yet the reality is identifying a viable stand-in signifies an arduous task. South Africa were undeniably the most practical candidates to stage the competition at short notice, yet their reluctance to take on that responsibility leaves the tournament precariously placed.

CAF’s aspirations that delaying tactics would instigate a Moroccan change of heart are now coming under significant scrutiny, given that preparing for the hosting of such a prestigious event in a minimal time period is far from ideal and the continent’s footballing hierarchy’s lack of assertiveness has only added weight to that issue. Another problem facing prospective hosts is that significant portions of populations are unlikely to be welcoming to a tournament Morocco – with their extensive infrastructure – deemed as unworkable.

Even if CAF negotiates the current climate of uncertainty surrounding a venue, there are other clouds hovering over the tournament, primarily the growing unease in relation to the clubs releasing personnel for international duty. On one side of the coin clubs will suggest they have both the best interests of their African players and their apprehensive teammates at heart, yet the cynical angle would suggest Ebola allows clubs a get out clause in regards to releasing their staff for an extended period mid-season.

The initial cases where such a scenario has infused have all been relatively low key, although not for those directly involved for instance John Kamara has been ordered by his Greek club to stay away for a period of three week’s following his involvement with Sierra Leone. Such scenarios of clubs showcasing anxiety are however only likely to rise – accounting for the power of the club football juggernaut there ultimately appears only one outcome, with players ill-advised to go against their employers.

The waters are undeniably muddy and for all those advocating Morocco’s reaction has been one of panic, it would be wrong to be overly critical of their trepidation considering that the hosting of a major sporting event in the current climate presents undeniable risks with potentially devastating connotations, even if aspects of those threats are more manageable than some would suggest.

Further clarity in relation to the tournament’s future should be revealed on Tuesday when CAF again meet to discuss the competition’s future – with time of the essence as it is imperative that consultation identifies a substitute before the threat of postponement or, even worse, that cancellation becomes a reality for the 2015 AFCON.

The Author

Matt Carter

Predominantly write on all things African football for a variety of sites including Just Football and Sandals for Goal Posts, with a little bit of women's football thrown in for good measure.

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