Connect to share and comment

Angolan violence scars African soccer tournament

Separatist attack on Togo team prompts questions about World Cup in South Africa.

Angolan police special forces guard a bus as it leaves the Olympic Village which houses the Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso teams taking part in the African Nations Cup soccer tournament in Cabinda, Jan. 9, 2010. Three people were killed when Angolan separatists attacked the Togo team bus on Jan. 8. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

BOSTON — European soccer clubs have always hated the African Cup of Nations and that distaste has only increased as more and more African stars play critical roles on teams in the elite leagues.

Not only do key players disappear to the call of their countries for up to three weeks in the middle of the European season. But as is true of all continental championships, the tournament is a bruising, often brutal affair and many of those players return to their clubs injured as well as exhausted.

The African Cup, which began Sunday in Angola, can create a serious problem for a team like Chelsea, which is trying to hold off Manchester United at the top of the Premier League while losing the most talented scorer in England, Didier Drogba, to Ivory Coast as well as its stalwart midfielder Michael Essien to Ghana.

Or for aspiring Manchester City, which faces key games with Everton and Manchester United over the next week without a key scorer, Emmanuel Adebayor, who is captain of the Togo team. Manchester City — in a fierce battle for fourth place, the last place that qualifies for the riches of Champions League next season — deemed Adebayor so valuable that it paid some $39 million to acquire him.

But even the worst-case imaginings of the club teams probably didn’t extend to any scenario in Angola as horrific as the terrorist attack by a separatist group on the bus carrying the Togo team to the site of its opening game.

The assault lasted for about a half hour before Angolan soldiers repelled the attackers. Three people on the bus were killed, while another eight were wounded. The attack took place in the country’s Cabinda province, which is both isolated and oil-rich, almost always an unsettling combination. And it immediately raised questions as to why Angola chose to schedule games in an area where a separatist movement is active.

Togo, which was scheduled to play Ghana on Monday, flew home over the weekend on orders of its government, though the players said they hoped to find a way back to the tournament. For the 15 other African qualifiers, the games will go on with heightened security. But the shock waves extended far beyond the Angolan borders.

The concerns of many in the international soccer community leaped ahead six months and some 1,000 miles to the south — to the 2010 World Cup, which will be hosted by South Africa starting in June. The South African organizing committee didn’t wait for those heightened concerns to get an extensive public airing before it took preemptive action, declaring the Angolan tragedy irrelevant to South African and its World Cup preparations.