Afcon 2015: Who can save African football from the Ebola nightmare?

COMMENT: Morocco officially withdrew as hosts of the Afcon on Tuesday and were subsequently disqualified. With Caf searching for a replacement, the continent faces a real crisis

By Ignat Manjoo

When it was first announced that Morocco had won the right to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, this writer immediately pictured the beautiful, ancient landscapes of the exotic Cherifien Kingdom.

You only have to soak in the fanatical support which inspired Raja Casablanca to the final of the 2013 Fifa Club World Cup in Morocco to realise what an Afcon could have been like in this region. That experience set the bar for fans across North Africa.

One imagined that once again the football bug would draw everyone to new stadiums - with the cities of Rabat, Marrakesh, Agadir and Tangier hosting epic clashes between different African nations.

But since March 2014, when the deadly Ebola virus hit western Africa at full force, there has been pain and panic throughout the continent. All of Africa is affected - everyone is desperate and determined to beat Ebola and secure the health of our people.

This is a challenge far more important than football itself.

For this reason, all reasonable human beings understand Morocco's decision to forfeit their hosting rights. Perhaps Caf was wrong to then disqualify them altogether - and it is pretty clear that the interests of Africa's governing body is not health and safety, but rather money.

"The financial damage and the consequences for Caf and its marketing partners would be too severe to call it off," Caf executive committee member Constant Omari told French radio on Monday.

Caf had hoped that because none of the Ebola-affected nations (Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea) were participating in the competition that the threat could be controlled.

“Having firmly and unanimously notified on 3 November its decision to keep the competition on the dates indicated, the Executive Committee confirmed that the Orange Africa Cup of Nations 2015 will not take place in Morocco,” Caf then stated on their official website on Tuesday.

At this difficult time, the continent needs to unite and gather its resources and knowledge in order to find a solution and stop the spread of Ebola. Many critics have stated that this is an impossible tournament to host. Much of the fear is drawn from the possibility of fans illegally crossing borders into the host country without detection and thus infecting new people. Until now, Morocco has yet to be affected by the virus but the risk would have been there due to the number of visitors attending the finals.

But a state of paranoia is just as dangerous. Life must go on, and fear can halt the progress of not only African football but African society - damaging tourism and the economy.

While this writer believes that the reasonable solution is to postpone the event until June 2015 or January 2016, we also have to understand Caf's position as they are tied to legal partnerships. They stood firm on their promises and the Moroccan dream has fallen apart.

Caf is currently discussing which nation will replace Morocco as the new hosts. With South Africa and Ghana already ruling themselves out, there are few options available. Nigeria has already expressed an interest, but there are political question marks with a general election due to be held in February 2015.

Other possible options include Angola and Algeria, with the former nation having already hosted in 2010. Tunisia and Gabon are long shots due to recent stadium violence and questions over infrastructure, while even an unnamed Asian country has thrown their hat into the ring.

Goal’s Africa correspondent Kingsley Kobo has described the mood in the north of the continent.

“If the Afcon is moved away from North Africa, then this region will be hit the hardest. Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia have a significant number of citizens working in Morocco, involved in building infrastructure, real estate and the restaurant and hotel business,” he explained, suggesting that for geographical and cultural reasons Algeria would be the most obvious replacement as hosts.

“Algeria shares a 1,601 km long terrestrial border with Morocco and both countries have strong cultural and religious ties. They call each other brothers and sisters, and share both the Arabic and Berber languages."

The Fennec Foxes have already booked their ticket for the Afcon, and are currently at the top of Africa’s Fifa Ranking. They were disappointing in the 2013 Afcon, but since then they have enjoyed an outstanding World Cup run in Brazil - eventually taking world champions Germany to extra-time in the last 16. This could be the time to flex their muscles.

Algeria had already planned to host the 2017 Afcon and they have the resources to help Caf at such short notice. But while we all await Caf’s decision to see who will replace Morocco, the question everyone is asking is who can save African football from Ebola?

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