Togo tragedy shows sports place on Dark Continent

As a sportswriter, I am all too often reminded that “no one cares” about sports. For many, there is a perception that sports aren’t important; they’re merely a game played for several hours to give those involved and those interested a temporary leave from reality. Anyone who believes that is and idiot.

Unfortunately, the wake-up call for this revelation was all to brutal and tragic this week, as three people involved with the Togo national soccer team—a bus driver, team spokesperson, and assistant coach—were killed when their team bus was riddled with machine gun fire en route to their opening game in the Africa Cup of Nations in Cabinda, Angola.

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The attack by armed rebels also wounded two players, goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale and defender Serge Akakpo, the former of whom was mistakenly reported as dead, and forced the team’s withdrawal from the tournament. The attack occurred in the oil-rich region of Cabinda some six miles past the border with the Republic of the Congo. The team bus was reportedly under siege for some 30 minutes before the Angolan military forced the rebels into retreat.

For those who may think themselves above noticing the exploits of boys who refused to grow up kicking a silly little ball around a field, this event should be all the proof needed of the global significance of a game.

As Americans, we can all point to the 1980 men’s hockey tournament in Lake Placid as the big internationally significant moment: the showdown with the Soviet Union, communism, and all the tension and hatred bubbling beneath the surface of the nearly half-century old Cold War. The Olympics are the stage in which we often see these kinds of battles play out, with individual athletes representing the hopes of a nation on the field of play. And at times, like in Atlanta in 1996 and Munich in 1972, these national rivalries can flare up away from the playing grounds with deadly consequences.

In recent years, the biennial ANC has become a showcase of talent on the “Dark Continent”, most of whose nations number soccer as the national sport. The 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa is a way for soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, to foster the immense, untapped pool of talent within and elevate the sport to more than just a remnant of former European colonial powers.

This tournament was supposed to be a showcase of the progress made by Angola, a former Portuguese colony that threw off decades of civil war in 2002. The driving force for that growth was a vast amount of wealth from oil reserves in the region near Cabinda where the attacks occurred.

What makes the attack on the Sparrow Hawks all the more disturbing is the relationship between the two countries. In a sporting sense, there isn’t all that much history between the two. They’ve met before competitively, the last time being in the group stages at ANC 2006, which Angola won 3-2, though neither team advanced. They were in the same qualifying group for three straight World Cups between 1994 and 2002, with neither team emerging to the Finals (the only significant impact of one team on the other was in 2002, where Togo’s two hard-fought draws took four points from the Black Antelopes that prevented them from qualifying). In total, Angola is 4-0-3 against Togo.

But politically, there is even more separation. The two nations are some 2,000 miles apart in straight-line distance, and the overland route is much longer. The also have different tribal histories, and followed different colonial histories (Togo was a French colony, while Angola was a possession of Portugal).

What it comes down to is that this was a statement; a geo-political statement by a group of rebels that used a sports team as its medium (originally the Forces for Liberation of the State of Cabinda took responsibility for the attack, but they have since reneged on that). Attention to the problems plaguing the continent, problems that would reduce many Westerners to tears and telethons if they happened anywhere else, is often sparse in the far reaches of Africa. And they chose the most internationally relevant opportunity to come their way in years, a sporting event, to show the world what they can do.

-Matthew De George ’10

For more reaction, click here, here, and here.

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