How Ebola Virus Made a Mess of Africa’s Biggest Soccer Tournament


The Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s bi-annual soccer showcase, is scheduled to run from January 17 to February 8, 2015. Sponsors are contracted. Qualifying is well underway. There’s just one problem: The tournament doesn’t have a host country. Morocco had agreed to host the tournament, but the North Africans, fearing a possible Ebola outbreak, balked.

The Moroccans had asked to postpone the tournament, but that request was met with a resounding “no.” Instead, in a meeting yesterday, the Executive Committee of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), African soccer’s governing body, expelled Morocco from the tournament. The CAF must now scramble to find a new host nation.

It’s hard to tell who is being more ridiculous, the CAF or Morocco. On the one hand, Morocco has a responsibility to consider the health and welfare of its citizens, and that responsibility goes well beyond any contract to host a soccer tournament, which is something the CAF should respect. Furthermore, the Moroccan soccer federation isn’t the same thing as the Moroccan government, and, even if it was, to punish the players of the Moroccan national team for such a decision is misguided.

On the other hand, Morocco’s concern about Ebola is pretty overblown. Yes, it’s a dangerous disease, but it’s also localized to only three of the CAF’s  56 member associations, none of which are Morocco or neighbors of Morocco. And while it would be theoretically possible for a person with Ebola to travel to Morocco and infect a bunch of people, it’s not likely. For one thing, Ebola is far less contagious than people tend to realize. For another, none of the teams from any of Africa’s three infected countries have yet to qualify for the tournament. Liberia was already eliminated, and Sierra Leone and Guinea are both in last place in their respective qualifying groups. If none of them qualify, there’s not a great incentive for fans from those countries to attend. And anyway, you’d think they have better things to worry about than a soccer tournament in Morocco.

That the CAF decided to move forward with the tournament has surprised many observers. There isn’t a long list of countries in Africa capable of putting on a major tournament with two months’ notice. Such an event takes a great deal of coordination and planning—security, hospitality, transportation—not to mention a baseline of critical infrastructure, like stadiums.

To make matters worse, in the 24 hours since yesterday’s decision, many of the countries on that shortlist have taken themselves out of consideration. South Africa, which recently hosted the 2010 World Cup and the 2013 Cup of Nations, has already declined.

“No, South Africa, or the South African Football Association, is not one of the countries to have shown a latest desire to replace Morocco as hosts for the 2015 AFCON finals,” the South Africa Football Association’s Dominic Chimhamvi said late yesterday. “That’s the position we were on a few days or weeks ago, and it hasn’t changed.”

Nigeria, a country that has successfully eradicated Ebola, also bowed out. Nigeria’s Punch spoke to an unnamed, “very highly placed official of the sports ministry,” this morning. “No, we are not in any way asking to take over,” he said. “Nigeria won’t host the competition and that is the position.”

Algeria is probably the last remaining host option, at least in Africa. There are widespread reports that a country in the Asian federation has stepped forward and offered to host the tournament. The CAF has yet to comment, but France’s L’Equipe is reporting the country is Qatar.

If Qatar does go on to successfully host the Cup of Nations, it would be a major coup for the tiny Persian Gulf nation. Since being selected to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has come under heavy criticism. The working conditions for laborers in the country are slave-like, and concerns over the heat are so widespread that FIFA is apparently considering moving the 2022 World Cup to the winter, when temperatures are lower.

By hosting the Cup of Nations, which takes place in winter, Qatar could prove the viability of a winter World Cup while flipping off its many doubters and critics.

It’s kind of a perfect solution, and it definitely fits the tournament’s tone. AFCON has always had an element of fuck you about it. It takes place, unapologetically and much to the chagrin of many European managers, right in the middle of the European soccer season, meaning many of the world’s best players miss a large period of European club competition. It’s the showpiece event for the world’s most disenfranchised and misunderstood continent, a chance for Africans to exert a little power, to throw a little party by Africa, for Africa. And if that comes with a chance to take a dig at Europe, all the better.