Citing the Ebola outbreak for snubbing the tournament highlights the difficult relationship between north and sub-Saharan Africa
By Sean Jacobs*
The African Cup of Nations is one of the toughest continental football tournaments in the world – 54 nations play multiple round robin and knockout stage games to compete for the final 16 places.
Morocco was scheduled to host the tournament in January 2015. Earlier this year, however, the country’s football association began to express reservations, citing the Ebola outbreak in three west African countries, and this week it decided to pull out of the tournament. In retaliation, the controlling body for African football, the Confederation of African Football, suspended Morocco and may still punish the country further.
Morocco’s reasons for refusing to host the tournament appear to be an overreaction given that the virus is only present in four out of 54 African countries. The US, which has direct flights to Morocco, has had more Ebola deaths than the majority of African states. So, a mix of politics, opportunism and self-interest seem to be behind Morocco’s decision.
For one, while Ebola is clearly a deadly disease, it is mainly being contained to three countries in West Africa (a separate strain has been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), though not with the same catastrophic results, and there was a second death in Mali this week). Secondly, teams from the affected countries seem unlikely to qualify for next year’s tournament. Though Guinea has an outside chance of qualifying, Sierra Leone is bottom of its group and Liberia is already out of contention.
Strangely, Morocco has been hosting some of Guinea’s qualifying games in Casablanca (they play there again next week) with no mention of Ebola, and Moroccan airlines are still flying daily to affected countries. The government claims it is easier to control flights than stadiums full of fans. But this doesn’t make sense since the bulk of Cup of Nations fans are usually homegrown (some estimate up to 80%).
But even more puzzling is that Morocco will still host the World Club Cup next month. The expected travel volume into the region from outside during this tournament should dwarf that of the Cup of Nations, yet Morocco has not seen fit to cancel it.
But there may be other more salient reasons for this. For all the talk of “African brotherhood” (count the times Moroccan football authorities mouth such platitudes), Morocco, like most of its north African neighbours, has a difficult relationship with nations south of the Sahara. African migrants, some on their way to Europe, regularly complain about harassment, violence and xenophobia.
Sarah El-Shaarawi, acting editor of the journal Arab Media and Society, based in Cairo, told me much of the coverage of Ebola in the Arab press has been inflammatory, so the disproportionate response in Morocco falls comfortably in line with overreactions we are seeing elsewhere.
Pre-existing perceptions almost certainly influenced the perceived risk of hosting the Cup of Nations. “Any discussion about Ebola in north Africa is inherently also a discussion about sub-Saharan migrants,” El-Shaarawi said. “The Moroccan NGO Forum Anfa launched an anti-racism awareness campaign entitled ‘I am Moroccan, I am African’ in direct response to racially motivated hate crimes, and incidents exacerbated by the fear of Ebola.”
Yet to some extent, sub-Saharan or black African fans have been equally guilty of labelling players and fans from Ebola-affected countries. The New York Times reports on Sierra Leonean players facing chants of “Ebola! Ebola!” when they played against the DRC. In Cameroon, players were made to stay in a hotel with no other guests and subjected to Ebola checks twice a day. As the Times notes, none of the Sierra Leone players involved live or work in Sierra Leone or had travelled there since the outbreak.
But there may be more pragmatic reasons for all this: tourism provides almost 10% of Morocco’s GDP, which in 2013 was $104bn. The Cup of Nations won’t bring in anything close to that figure. Even one case of Ebola would wreak havoc on the tourism industry (this sounds ridiculous, but think of the tourists cancelling trips to South Africa because of Ebola in west Africa).
On the upside, these events should give fans and journalists of African football pause to investigate the workings of the Confederation of African Football. An opaque body, CAF has done little to promote or develop the game on the continent. It is striking that the majority of players who represented African countries in the World Cup this summer play their football elsewhere. The Cup of Nations is a business whose inner workings and profit sharing we know little about. How much money does CAF make from television and advertising revenues attached to the tournament, and where is that money spent?
One of the suggestions made by the Moroccan organisers was to move the tournament to next summer. Leaving their motives aside, this may prove to be the most constructive thing to emerge from this saga, and good for players. European sides constantly complain about the tournament’s timing in the middle of their seasons; and it could also lead to increased viewership because it won’t be competing with any other major sporting event.