The problem with the Africa Cup of Nations isn’t the timing. It isn’t its place in the calendar, its juxtaposition with the European season; it isn’t the availability of players, or burn-out. It’s the dead people. Too many dead people. Too many dead people for a football tournament.
There have been eight in Cameroon, trampled to death outside the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde; there were three in Angola in 2010, murdered by terrorists who attacked the Togolese team bus.
In 2015, Afcon had a fortunate escape. Ghana’s players came under attack from supporters of host nation Equatorial Guinea, but there were only injuries, no fatalities. The players took shelter inside a goal as missiles rained down. There were smoke bombs deployed, and a helicopter summoned to disperse the crowd.
‘It was like a war zone,’ said Kwesi Nyantakyi, president of Ghana’s federation. ‘We are lucky that we haven’t lost any lives.’
At least eight people died following a stampede outside a stadium in Cameroon last week
On Monday, that luck ran out. Shoddy, lazy, inadequate organisation produced a tragic, inevitable conclusion. The Confederation of African Football are trying to pin the blame on the individual who closed a gate to the south of the stadium, leading to a crush, but this is not about one dreadful mistake.
‘There were things that should have been foreseen,’ admitted CAF president Patrice Motsepe, and not just this time. Taking matches to a disputed territory in 2010 cost lives, deficient preparation for Cameroon’s hardly unexpected progress in their first home tournament in 50 years has proved fatal, once more. This is on CAF.
‘It will never happen again,’ said Motsepe. He can’t guarantee that. Nothing in this competition’s recent history guarantees that.
The facts are that as recently as November, CAF were threatening to take games away from Olembe Stadium, the tournament’s centre-piece venue, opened in September at a cost of £222million.
One of the last infrastructure changes was the fence that penned people in as the crush developed. The failure to foresee this possibility was a direct result of the rush to complete.
Equally, CAF allowed tickets to be sold that did not specify a part of the stadium let alone a row, or seat. Fans could enter anywhere. The arena is eight miles outside the city centre and the first point of approach is south side. It is hardly a surprise that the south gates were increasingly overwhelmed as kick-off drew near.
In 2010, the tournament in Angola was overshadowed as three people were killed when Togo’s national team bus was attacked by terrorists as it headed into the Angolan province of Cabinda
In 2015, Equatorial Guinea fans attacked Ghana’s players, but there were no fatalities that night
At first fans listened to instructions to move around the stadium perimeter and seek entry on the quieter north side, but as the match began the sense of frantic urgency grew greater, the crush to get in tragically unstoppable. The dead, including at least two children, were those who fell and were trodden into the dust.
And yet the show goes on. There never seemed to be the smallest doubt that Afcon 2022 would continue. What toll would make CAF pause for thought?
Three didn’t do it – Togo were initially banned for two tournaments for daring to withdraw their shellshocked players, before the Court of Arbitration intervened – nor has eight.
Is there a magic number at which the organisers might take responsibility for the latest disaster? All that has happened so far is Olembe has lost its quarter-final. ‘We have to make the safety of every single spectator our primary concern,’ said Motsepe. ‘There is zero tolerance on circumstances which could result in people being injured at the stadium or losing their lives.’
But that isn’t true. There’s a huge amount of tolerance of risk from those safely ensconced from it. We saw that here last summer. The first meeting of the Security Advisory Group for Wembley’s European Championship games took place on June 4 and was attended by one member of the Metropolitan Police, a lowly sergeant. At the post-riot debrief on July 20, there were six from the Met, including a chief inspector. Too late.
Just as it is too late for empty pledges in Yaounde. Africa’s Cup of Nations comes with a human toll, again. This is not about a gate, or one misguided gateman. This is a culture of wanton carelessness that needs proper investigation, because it starts at football’s very top.
THERE’S NO STING IN THIS FEUD
As feuds go, the one between Roy Hodgson and Watford mascot Harry the Hornet must be the most overplayed in history.
Hodgson has to ‘win over’ Harry, it is said, and faces ‘an awkward reunion’ having once said the mascot behaved disgracefully when taunting Wilfried Zaha by diving.
So, on one side is a grown man in a bug costume, on the other a 74-year-old beginning his 23rd management job across a career spanning 45 years.
It isn’t Hodgson who might feel awkward.
Watford’s mascot Harry the Hornet’s (pictured) feud with Roy Hodgson has been overblown
LUKAKU’S LOVE OF BANGERS TAKES THE BISCUIT!
Now we know why Romelu Lukaku has been looking a little sluggish for Chelsea of late. It’s all that Yorkshire pudding.
For this revelation, which may not be known to Thomas Tuchel, we have to thank the people at Beyond Meat, where Lukaku has a commercial partnership.
A marketing release arrived this week detailing how involved Lukaku has been in creating his own dishes, using the plant-based meat substitute.
Lukaku’s speciality? Bangers and mash. Antwerp-born to Congolese parents, he was, one imagines, brought up on little else. But, hey, let Romelu tell it.
‘It’s no secret that Brits love a banger!’ he enthuses, via the auspices of Beyond Meat’s PR agency. ‘And it’s become one of my favourite dishes too since being in the UK. I really enjoy cooking for the people I love and the Beyond Sausage never disappoints. Packed with 17g of plant-based protein, it’s the perfect winter warmer and works brilliantly in hearty and wholesome dishes such as bangers and mash, toad in the hole or it can be simply chopped and added to pasta or used as a pizza topping.’
Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku has partnered with Beyond Meat and he talked up Bangers and Mash
Well, they’ve certainly captured his authentic voice there. Romelu’s words fair roll off the tongue for someone speaking English as a second language. And bangers? What foreign visitor doesn’t slide into colloquialism so comfortably? It’s only a surprise he hasn’t spotted how well a banger would go with a bit of bubble and squeak; or in a butty with a nice cuppa.
Yet Tuchel must have spat out his kippers, when he saw what Lukaku regarded as a wholesome dinner.
Toad in the hole? You can have all the plant-based sausages you like, mate, but that’s a batter pudding. And, to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the roasting tin, it needs a good layer of oil, or fat.
Vegetarianism really isn’t the issue here. If Lukaku is whacking his plant-based sausages into a Yorkshire pudding on a regular basis, he won’t be able to get his backside off the floor.
Still, it’s good to hear our footballers speaking their truth, even if it’s only to inadvertently tell us why Chelsea may be looking for a new striker next summer.
Next week: Kepa Arrizabalaga reckons you can’t beat a Beyond Parody rasher sarnie, but don’t forget his secret ingredient: lard.
GREEDY INFANTINO SIMPLY HAS TO GO
‘We need to find ways to give hope to Africans so they don’t need to cross the Mediterranean to find, maybe, a better life, but more probably death in the sea,’ said Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA.
He was talking, incredibly, about a biennial World Cup. As if pathetic migrants taking to flimsy craft in utter desperation would be made to feel better about their lives by a football tournament.
To understand the utter stupidity of this man, and this statement, imagine some poor soul breathing his terrified last before going under, the thought crossing his mind that he would have been happy with displacement, impoverishment, the threat of war, if only there had been a World Cup every other year.
The sheer greed of Infantino and what he will say to furnish it is appalling. Arsene Wenger is diminished daily by his association with this man. All football people are.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s concerted push for a biennial World Cup shows his greed
ARSENAL BOOKING INVESTIGATION MUST BE OUT IN THE OPEN
It is now known a suspicious bet said to have won £250,000 was placed on Granit Xhaka getting booked in the last 10 minutes for Arsenal against Leeds.
The stake was roughly £50,000, putting the price in the vicinity of 5-1. Yet it is also claimed no Arsenal players are under investigation or accused of wrongdoing.
So who is the target of this inquiry? There are only two individuals involved in the process leading to a yellow card. The perpetrator, in this case Xhaka, or the referee, on this day Andre Marriner.
And if no Arsenal player is implicated, what is being suggested? The alternate theory would be that bookmakers laid a stupid price, got stung and now want to wriggle out of paying.
Everything about this investigation should be in the open now because reputations are at stake.
GB CREDIBILITY GOES RAPIDLY DOWNHILL
Very excitedly, Cornelius Kersten was announced as the first British competitor in an Olympic long track speed skating event in 30 years.
It is hardly our triumph, though. Kersten is Dutch, where the sport is a national obsession. Even Team GB’s official profile lists his hometown as Haarlem.
‘His ambitions to compete for Team GB were fired by the attempts of Philip Brojaka to qualify for Vancouver 2010,’ reads the spiel, although the fact that four Dutch speed skaters are ahead of him in the season’s rankings for 1,000 metres, including three in the world’s top four, might better explain his allegiance.
Kersten is from a country that has won seven of the last 10 Olympic gold medals in men’s individual long track, but we are supposed to believe his inspiration was Brojaka, who finished 25th and 36th at two World Championships and never made it to an Olympics. Seriously?
Cornelius Kersten is Dutch but he will compete for Team GB at the 2022 Winter Olympics
We have to spin these preposterous narratives to cover up the fact we are pulling in ringers from around the globe to bolster our medal chances and funding potential. Izzy and Zoe Atkins, Americans based in America, will compete in freestyle skiing, snowboarder Charlotte Bankes represented France until 2018-19.
Globalisation creates citizens of the world, of course. Lilah Fear, a Team GB ice dancer, was born in Connecticut to Canadian parents but was brought up in London and completed her education in Montreal. She could have represented any of three countries.
Yet Britain also proactively seeks advantage by harvesting foreign talent. Kersten qualifies as British through his mother and no rules are broken, but to pitch his qualification as a milestone for Team GB is stretching reality. He wouldn’t get in the Dutch team, but he’s better than anything we’ve got. That’s the long and short of it.
BERNSTEIN IS RIGHT… BUT A RIGHT HYPOCRITE
In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, David Bernstein called for action over the use of the word ‘Yid’ at football matches.
The timing, on the day Tottenham played Chelsea, confirmed that he was primarily unhappy with the crass way a racial slur has been appropriated by Tottenham supporters – enabling its abusive use by opposition fans. The fact Tottenham loyalists identify as ‘Yids’ prevents police action when others use it.
‘It is clear that the use of the N word and the P word will not be tolerated in any circumstances,’ wrote Bernstein. ‘Why then should this not also apply to the use of the Y word, which is equally insulting to many and has horrible historic connotations?’
Why indeed? If only Bernstein had been in a position of authority where he might have influenced this conversation earlier. For instance, as chairman of the FA from 2011 to 2013.
STARSTRUCK TILEY RESPECTS CELEBRITY MORE THAN RULES
Another fine week for Craig Tiley, tournament director of the Australian Open. Another week in which rules were applied according to how famous a person is.
So the anonymous activists in the ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts had their clothing confiscated by security guards, before the public outcry led to a hasty backtrack.
Yet when Nick Kyrgios needlessly smashed a dead ball into the crowd, striking a young boy who burst into tears, there was no question of him getting the default Novak Djokovic received for similarly rash behaviour at the US Open in 2020, when a ball struck in anger hit a line judge.
The difference between the offences? None really. Djokovic was disqualified. Kyrgios in this tournament, however, is a crowd-pleaser, a huge draw and the subject of a Netflix documentary.
Tiley was never going to value tennis’s rules over the hot-ticket celebrity. So Kyrgios plays in this weekend’s doubles final. And Peng Shuai’s status remains unknown. Not famous enough for Tiley to care, obviously.
Craig Tiley was not going to banish Nick Kyrgios given his celebrity draw at Australian Open
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