James Lawton: Wenger is right, fear must not halt the cup
Monday 11 January 2010
Emmanuel Adebayor could not have put it with more pain or more affectingly. Seeing the big picture, he suggested, is not so easy when your focus is riveted on a friend and a team-mate with whom you were laughing and joking a few minutes earlier but who now has a bullet fired from a terrorist sub-machine gun inside him.
Such trauma made it inevitable and also right that the big man from Manchester City and his Togolese colleagues should be withdrawn from the suddenly besieged African Nations Cup.
However, this doesn't mean that there isn't a broader perspective and in all the tragic circumstances we can only be grateful that back in England, where football so often seems to struggle with any option that isn't shot through with self-interest, it was supplied so swiftly by someone who stood to benefit directly from an immediate evacuation of the African players.
Arsenal's Arsène Wenger, in sharp contrast to other interested parties, including the Hull City manager, Phil Brown, and Bolton chairman, Phil Gartside, is emphatic in his belief that the tournament must go on.
For it not to do so, he says, would represent the kind of defeat which would make all of sport the hostage to a perilous and perhaps ultimately unplayable future. Wenger, who has his key midfielder Alex Song of Cameroon and Ivory Coast defender Emmanuel Eboué at the tournament, might have supplied the template of a standard reaction to every intrusion into sport by those who see in its vast exposure and popularity the rich pickings of attention and propaganda.
"I don't believe you can stop a competition because that will reward the people who have caused the trouble," said Wenger. "The international federation has to make sure there is good security and you have to leave a decision to some players if they feel insecure, but I feel the tournament has to go on."
Gartside, who has Danny Shittu with Nigeria, said, "We are concerned because one of our players is there and I'm sure other Premier League clubs feel the same way. I think anyone in that situation would want to get home as soon as possible." Brown, who has Seyi Olofinjana with Nigeria and Daniel Cousin with Gabon, declared simply, "I have two players on duty and I want them home."
But for whose good? It may well be that individual players will feel an overwhelming need to come home, as England cricketers did in the first aftermath of the terrorist outrage in Mumbai in 2008, but the cricketers thought again, after being reassured about levels of security, and the response in India was of overwhelming gratitude that the workers of terror had not scored a cheap victory through sport.
This is where the footballers of Africa are today, and will be over the next few weeks as the authorities crank up higher levels of security and hold their breath against the possibilities of fresh outrage.
No doubt one of their most devoted cheerleaders will be former Angola captain Fabrice Akwa, who recently announced so hopefully that the African Nations Cup would be a wonderful means of showing that his long scourged country was "not just about war, oil and poverty".
There is, of course, a much wider investment in hope. When terrorists attacked the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore early last year, sport was returned to the front line it first occupied in Munich in 1972, when the masked men of Black September stole into the Olympic Village and slaughtered Israeli athletes and coaches. In Pakistan, the cost of that outrage has only recently been reduced by the return of the cricket team, such a potent element in national morale, to international action in Australia.
What has been destroyed, of course, is any ability to hide behind the thin line that some used to presume separated sport from the rigours and the dangers of real life. That illusion was assaulted grievously in Munich and, until the incidents in Lahore and Angola, seemed to be existing in some kind of eerily fragile afterlife.
The service performed by Wenger this last weekend is that he has highlighted the choice that everyone in sport is obliged to make when the harshest realities are announced by the sound of terrorist gunfire. It would be patently absurd, he implies, to inflict the need for good intentions on the scrambled senses and understandable terror experienced by Adebayor and his team-mates at the weekend.
For Adebayor, who spoke touchingly of his anguished team-mates reaching for their cell phones not to call their agents but their "mums," it is entirely reasonable that he wants to put a lot of country between himself and the place where he and his friends stretched out under the bursts of sub-machine gun fire.
As for the other players, much will depend over the next few days on their ability to accept assurances on security and get on with the job they came to do, which is to enhance the life of their continent – one which, for all its problems, is not exactly unique in suffering the threat of terrorism.
For this reason, South African indignation over the eagerness with which some are linking the weekend tragedy to the risks attached to next summer's World Cup is easy to understand. The world is, after all, a dangerous place – just ask the inhabitants of Mumbai and Lahore and the occupants of the plane that recently flew into Detroit.
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