On Friday, with the coronavirus beginning to make an imprint on African sport, the Confederation of African Football took steps to reduce the upcoming footballing schedule in order to reduce the spread of the pandemic.
Caf announced the decision to suspend the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations qualifying double-header—scheduled for late March and early April—while the women’s U-20 World Cup qualifiers and the women’s Afcon 2020 qualifiers have also been postponed and will be rescheduled.
Various different national federations have also taken their own specific measures to halting the virus spread and reducing the impact on their populations by limiting the transport—and possible transfer—that accompanies with sports gatherings.
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While some have moved to suspend football, or at least play behind closed doors for now, others—such as the South African Football Association—have declared ‘business as usual’, although SAFA are monitoring the development of the virus, which has already been detected in SA.
Untouched by Caf’s announcement, however, is the African Nations Championship, which was due to be held in Cameroon next month.
The Chan is a 16-team tournament for home-based players, held every two years, which gives local players the opportunity to shine in a continental context and can often lead to lucrative moves overseas.
It’s a tournament with immense potential, and represents one of Caf’s most important products after the Nations Cup and Caf’s club competitions.
However, this year’s edition has been placed in jeopardy due to the coronavirus.
Reigning champions Morocco have been withdrawn by their federation, while a decree by the Rwandan government to remove all of their sports competitors from international tournament means that the Amavubi have also pulled out.
Two absentees need not be fatal for the tournament; Caf could of course re-jig the groups, or they could just give Uganda and Togo—the two teams paired with Morocco and Rwanda—byes to the quarter-finals.
Another option would be to extend an invitation to Algeria, who were defeated by Morocco during qualification, or to Ethiopia, who were themselves ousted by Rwanda.
These alternatives come relatively late in the day—the tournament is due to begin on April 4—but they are avenues that Caf could explore.
Realistically, however, the withdrawal of both Morocco and Rwanda ought to be a signal to Caf and Cameroon that the 2020 Chan may well need to be cancelled or postponed.
There are already instances of coronavirus in the Central African nation, while several of the nations set to compete in the tournament—including Burkina Faso, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo—have all confirmed cases of Covid-19.
In the spread of the illness around the world, medical officials have often found themselves far behind the curve of the virus spread, with people contracting the virus days before they originally show symptoms, and able to transmit it to others before testing positive or becoming symptomatic.
The public information may well only be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the illness’s true spread.
Yet despite the uncertainty and the speculation, Caf and Cameroon appear keen to push ahead with the Chan, albeit with some concessions to the ongoing pandemic.
Medical experts are assessing the country’s measures this weekend, as they determine whether Cameroon is doing enough to combat the spread.
On Thursday, the country’s Minister of External Relations Lejeune Mbella urged chiefs of Cameroon’s embassies and diplomatic missions abroad to only grant entry visas to those coming for the tournament upon the presentation of a presentation of a negative Covid-19 test.
It’s a suggestion that’s neither practical nor particularly effective; what’s to prevent journalists, for example, contracting the illness en route to Cameroon, after having received their visa?
Similarly, with some of the world’s major economies struggling to provide tests for the number of people who have been recommended for testing, how can all those who wish to attend the event ensure that they’ve got their hands on the precious ‘negative’ slip before the competition takes place?
It will be intriguing to see what the Caf medical team—headed by Dr. Boubakary Sidike—determine regarding Cameroon’s medical preparedness to host the tournament, but the local authorities must ensure there’s no pride involved in their ultimate decision, which must be taken with the safety of players, officials, supporters and journalists at the heart.
Caf deserve credit for their u-turn this week, as they vowed to maintain their football schedule on Thursday, before announcing the suspension in light of the changing climate by Friday.
Cameroon must be prepared to make a similarly difficult decision over the coming days.