Angolan violence scars African soccer tournament

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.

“We … cannot compare organization and security in Angola with South Africa just because the two countries happen to be in the same region of the world,” said a spokesman for the local organizers, Rich Mkhondo, according to the South African Press Association. He added that FIFA, soccer’s international governing body regarded the Angolan tragedy as an isolated incident that might have happened anywhere.

The latter half of that statement is certainly impossible to dispute. Sadly, terrorist attacks on sports teams are nothing new. Sports has not had immunity since the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games. Just last year there was an incident similar to that in Angola when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked on its way to a match in Pakistan.

FIFA is certainly to be commended for its commitment to Africa. Last year it staged the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria and didn’t blink when rebel groups indicated that teams might be targeted. The tournament was conducted without any major incidents. And FIFA also held the 2009 U-19 Cup in Egypt without major problems.

Still, security issues have always been the biggest worry surrounding the 2010 World Cup. And while there may be no local terrorist groups that can muster an Angola-like attack or even an outside group that can penetrate South Africa’s border defenses, the nation’s shockingly high murder rate hovers over the event.

It is not enough to ensure the safety of the participating teams; there is also the need to protect the fans from around world that will follow their teams. Their movements are unscheduled and far less predicable and include celebrating victories and mourning defeats into the wee hours of the morning. Early reports indicate that Americans have bought more match tickets than citizens of any other country except South Africa.

South Africa certainly is not Angola and shouldn’t be tarnished by Angola’s security failures any more than Canada or Mexico shares responsibility for the security lapses of the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane.

It was 15 years ago that, as South Africa hosted the rugby World Cup, Nelson Mandela embraced the national rugby team and used its stunning victory to help forge a new nation. However, the goals of the South African government for World Cup 2010 are international rather than domestic and transcend the playing fields.

This time the whole world will be watching. And the great hope is to confront some harsh international stereotypes by presenting the modern face of a new South Africa. If that face proves to be one of significant menace, South Africa will have squandered a great opportunity to reinvent and redefine itself in the eyes of the world.