James Lawton: As stricken Togo goalkeeper fights for survival, a symbol of hope is born

Five days after the Africa Cup of Nations shooting, Kodjovi Obilale is in intensive care in Johannesburg – with more than one nation rallying behind him
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The Independent Football

Beyond the trauma unit and the screen of green trees, the row rages on. But then as far as Kodjovi Obilale, who is hooked up to a ventilation machine, it might be happening on another planet.

He has the simple imperative to live – and perhaps one day discover with some wonderment how it was he became nothing less than a symbol of both the anguish and the hope of a continent which sees sport not as a problem but deliverance.

First there is the anguish – and the anger. South African President Jacob Zuma has joined in the argument now, denouncing the idea that there is a link between the terrorist outrage 1,300 miles away in Angola and fears for the safety of next summer's World Cup.

The nation's police commissioner, Bheki Cele, is also indignant, along with Danny Jordaan of the South African Football Association. They are saying that their situation is being damned without proper analysis, that if they have crime at worrying levels they do not have collective anarchy or terrorism. They have problems, certainly, but not uniquely and not insurmountably – and they point to a largely trouble-free record when hosting front-line sports events.

Yet despite what many feel, the unfair reach of the connection between these two nations and the drama of Obilale's fight for survival taking place in Johannesburg, is undoubtedly making a strange fusion of the arguments. And there is emerging a palpable and passionate hope that the stricken goalkeeper will be healed in their own country.

In all of this, at Milpark Hospital, there is only one significant question. No one can change the world and reduce its risks. No one can know where the terrorists will strike next and for whom the ambulance bells will be ringing. What they can do, though, is win the battle they are fighting in one of the 30 trauma berths in a unit well versed in the effects of gunfire. They can save the life of the 25-year-old Obilale, the Togolese reserve goalkeeper who logically but with huge irony was flown to this city notorious for random violence by International SOS, a medical insurance organisation specialising in seeking out the best possible treatment in the quickest time.

The decision was logical because Milpark has a superb reputation. Included in its patient list over the years are Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Now it is the unheralded goalkeeper, who was eking a living in the fourth division of France before two bullets entered his back on a country road last week, who is the centre of all the attention.

His visitors this week have included Mandela's former wife, Winnie, various luminaries of the African National Congress and Sports Minister Dr Makhenkesi Stofile. The hospital is informing the governments of Togo and South Africa and his wife in France and relatives in Togo of Kodjovi's progress each day.

The visits are more than anything symbolic gestures. Yesterday morning he remained on a ventilator but a spokeswoman, speaking for the team of surgeons who have been ordered by the South African government not to give one-on-one interviews, insisted that this does not mean that progress isn't being made. A daily press briefing was scrapped yesterday. There was nothing new to report, no significant change in his situation.

"Obviously," she said, "his body has been through a terrible trauma but he is young and strong and fit and this is serving him very well now. He is stable and reacts to commands but the decision of the doctors is that it is better for him if he remains on the ventilator and is sedated. It is helping him to preserve his strength. We are very hopeful."

Around about the time President Zuma was declaring his faith in South African security, the surgeons were making a practical decision.

It was that whatever of Kodjovi's life they are able to rescue, including the possibility of his one day playing football again, he will be obliged to carry for ever some evidence from the day his life was changed: bullet fragments in his abdominal cavity.

Professor Ken Boffard, one of the surgeons, explained, "We have treated the major injury. There is no point in removing the pieces of the bullet because it will cause more damage as surgeons would have to make a cut to get them out. The bullet is not going to move and he can live with it."

No doubt he would be grateful for that – just as South Africa, while acknowledging that it has daunting statistics on individual crimes of violence, believes that its ability to mount effective security in the protection of visitors to high-profile sports events should be respected.

President Zuma insists that there is no link between Angola and South Africa, no more than Spain or England when they suffered bomb outrages. "South Africa remains 100 per cent ready to host the Cup," declared the president. The presidential spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, added: "He [Zuma] emphasised that the shocking and unacceptable attack on the Togolese team should not be blown out of proportion but should serve as impetus for the African continent and the world at large to work even harder to rid us of terrorist activity and violence wherever it surfaces."

Cele, the police commissioner, like the president and Jordaan, drew a parallel with the outrages in Spain and England – and also insisted that the security loophole exploited in Angola (by the Togo team going it alone, off the official radar) would not have been available under South African measures. He said, "When it happened in Angola we noted that the gaps that could have been noticed were closed in South Africa. We are really fine. I was in Angola and the reaction was very much a little bit about what happened in Cabinda [where the attack on the Togo team took place] and a lot about 2010 and South Africa."

Cele also attacked the decision to withdraw the Togo team. "The final instruction was you will play, but not under the flag of Togo. They were disowned. It gives credence to terrorism when officials succumb. I would have loved them to continue. There is a history of sport and terrorism."

The police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, maintained a united front, saying, "It is just unfair to judge South Africa's preparedness to host the world on the fragility of the situation in Angola."

Such certainties, inevitably, seemed rather remote at Milpark Hospital, where the flow of celebrity visitors is now being discouraged against the priority of the watchful, distraction-free care of Kodjovi Obilale.

The last word from inside the trauma team came from Professor Boffard, who said that the patient was stable and generally satisfactory. He said, "The medical team is satisfied with the progress of Mr Obilale. He will however remain in the trauma intensive care unit until he is fully out of danger."

"Fully out of danger." It would be an announcement guaranteed a surge of celebration through the antiseptic corridors of a hospital which, according to an official statement of perhaps unconscious irony, is dealing with a once obscure victim of wounds which it does not find "uncommon". Indeed, the celebration would be the kind that was not so long ago reserved for a successful and unbloodied World Cup.

This is, of course, another and rather more complicated story. In the meantime, Kodjovi Obilale has come to represent more than just one man's fight for a clean bill of health.

Africa Cup of Nations: Reports and fixtures


Cameroon 0 Gabon 1

Tipped as one of the favourites, Cameroon slumped to defeat in their opening match last night against underdogs Gabon. The four-time champions went behind after 17 minutes when Hull striker Daniel Cousin capitalised on a defensive mix-up. The Panthers resisted late pressure from Cameroon to record only their second win in the Africa Cup of Nations. Cameroon began well and Celtic midfielder Landry N'Guemo went close before Gabon goalkeeper Didier Ovono touched Achille Emana's shot on to a post. Gabon went ahead against the run of play as Cameroon's defence allowed a mishit pass from Cedric Moubamba to find its way to Cousin, who slipped a low shot past Carlos Kameni.

Cameroon almost equalised moments later as Arsenal midfielder Alex Song surged forward and was brought down on the edge of the area, only for referee Daniel Bennett to wave play on. Geremi went close before the break with a free-kick before Emana struck a long-range half-volley that flashed wide.

Internazionale forward Samuel Eto'o finally got involved midway through the second half, flashing a shot wide from inside the area. Emana then forced a good save from Ovono as Paul Le Guen's side kept up the pressure before substitute Somen Tchoyi shot wide, but it was beginning to look like it might not be Cameroon's day. Ovono made a good save to keep out another Geremi free-kick in the last minute and Song then sent Cameroon's last chance over the bar. Gabon almost sealed it when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the crossbar in injury time, but the early goal from Cousin, who joins QPR on loan after the tournament, proved enough.

Zambia 1 Tunisia 1

Both sides failed to take advantage of Cameroon's defeat as the two nations had to settle for a 1-1 draw in Lubango. Zambia dominated proceedings and took the lead in the 19th minute, Jacob Mulenga playing the ball back to James Chamanga, whose weak shot dribbled under Aymen Mathlouthi into the net. Tunisia equalised out of nowhere in the 39th minute, Souheil Dhaoudadi slamming home a Youssef Msakni cross. A late Emmanuel Mayuka effort appeared to have won the match for Zambia, only for his goal to be ruled offside.


Mali v Algeria Group A, 4pm (Eurosport)

Mali will hope to continue where they left off against Angola after drawing despite being 4-0 down with only 11 minutes left. "The pressure is greater for them," Mali midfielder Seydou Keita said. "If they drop points against us, qualification for the next round will be tough." After opening with a surprise 3-0 defeat against Malawi, the Algeria goalkeeper, Faouzi Chaouchi, has called on his Desert Foxes team to "redeem themselves". England assistant manager Franco Baldini will be an interested spectator in Luanda ahead of the World Cup group meeting between the sides in Cape Town on 18 June.

Angola v Malawi Group A, 6.30pm (Eurosport)

The tournament hosts seek to make amends after surrendering that four-goal lead against Mali at the weekend, but have doubts over the fitness of central defender Dede and midfielder Gilberto. "We have to raise our heads," captain Kali said. "There's no explanation for letting go such a big lead." Malawi know victory will make them the first side through to the quarter-finals, following Monday's surprise 3-0 victory over World Cup-bound Algeria.