They think it’s all ebola

The football world's response to the disease has been farcical.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Football is more than just a game. To diehard fans, it’s a quasi-religion. To policymakers, it’s an instrument of moral education. And to social commentators, it’s a metaphor for social ills. So what happens when one cultural obsession collides with another? I’m talking here about the ebola panic. The deadly virus hasn’t actually affected football in a medical sense. No professional footballer has, to my knowledge, been infected. But the fear of ebola has inevitably spread into the footballing world.

The outbreaks of ebola in parts of West Africa have placed the 2015 African Cup of Nations in doubt. Host nation Morocco has asked the Confederation of African Football to postpone the tournament due to fears over the virus. Moroccan sports minister Mohamed Ouzzine explained why his country wanted to postpone the tournament. ‘We are talking about the African Cup of Nations where we are expecting between 200,000 to 400,000, even one million spectators to converge in Morocco’, he said. ‘I don’t think there is any state or any country that has the necessary capabilities to monitor, check and control the current ebola situation when faced with these numbers… We don’t have a problem with visiting teams, we have a problem with visitors.’

One of the common fears about ebola is that it’s rife throughout Africa. In fact, the incidence of ebola is confined in the main to impoverished districts of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Liberia – and even then, relatively tiny numbers of people have been actually infected by the disease. That hasn’t stopped the fear of ebola being projected onto pretty much every African footballer. In this respect, there’s a strong racial dimension to ebola panic. All Africans are seen as potential ebola carriers. Ivory Coast defender Siaka Tiéné was asked by his club to undergo a medical check after returning from international duty. Montpellier coach Rolland Courbis described the examination as a ‘prudent and logical move’. I beg to differ. Ivory Coast played two African Cup of Nations matches against the Democratic Republic of Congo – one at home in Abidjan and the other in Kinshasa. Have there been any reported cases of ebola in the Ivory Coast this year? Not a sausage. What about DRC? Sixty-eight cases of the disease have been recorded in Équateur, a province so remote that aid workers have struggled to reach it. Kinshasa is 800 kilometres away from Equateur and no cases have been reported in the city. In other words, there were no rational grounds for the medical check.

Players from the Sierra Leone national team have encountered similarly humiliating treatment, despite the fact that most of the squad is based outside Africa – none of them have been in the country since July and all of their games are played in neutral venues. John Kamara was told by his Greek club, Lamia, to stay away from training for three weeks after returning from an international match. This measure seems excessive given that the game was played in Cameroon and that the Sierra Leone team was effectively quarantined in their hotel and regularly checked for symptoms of the disease.

Sierra Leone players have encountered fearful responses in other Africa countries. The Seychelles forfeited a game against Sierra Leone. Kamara’s teammate Michael Lahoud, who plays in the United States, said that opponents have refused to shake hands or swap shirts. ‘People refuse to allow you into places because the first thing they think is that you have ebola. It’s pretty shocking discriminatory behaviour’, says Lahoud. ‘You feel humiliated. Being stranded in places like Zambia, just trying to get home because they won’t let you through, because they automatically think you have ebola.’ Inevitably, the disease has found its way into tasteless terrace chants. ‘The reaction from fans has been brutal at times… In DR Congo 20,000 people were chanting ‘Ebola, Ebola’ for 90 minutes’, Lahoud said.

The fearful reaction to ebola in football has ranged from the excessively cautious to the downright absurd. A few weeks ago, a rumour spread like wildfire over Twitter that AC Milan midfielder Michael Essien had contracted the disease. Essien is from Ghana, a country which, to date, has not had a single reported case of ebola. The player was forced to take to Twitter to counter the rumours. ‘I’m very fit and very healthy. No truth in the internet rumours that I have contracted ebola’, he tweeted. Journeyman striker Dele Adebola is another player who had to issue a public denial that he was suffering from the condition. Why? Because a joke which played on the fact that his surname sounds a bit like ebola went viral – excuse the pun – on Twitter via the #PrayForDele hashtag. (‘Have you heard about the former footballer, Dele? He Ad-ebola.’) Inevitably, some idiots didn’t get the joke and were genuinely concerned about the player’s health. You couldn’t make it up.

While some footballers are forced to deal with public misconceptions about ebola, others are lunging in two-footed to tackle the disease itself. They have been infected by Bono Syndrome; a condition characterised by the delusion that they are duty-bound to save Africa. Take for example UNICEF’s ‘goodwill ambassador’ David Beckham, who has recorded a video message to the ‘courageous’ people of Sierra Leone. ‘The good news is this disease can be avoided if you take the right measures’, says the former England midfielder. ‘Learn more about the life-saving instructions you can follow to protect you and your families from ebola and together we can collectively halt this disease in its tracks.’ It’s only a matter of time before we see players wearing special bootlaces or performing choreographed goal celebrations to promote awareness of the disease.

Ebola is a terrible disease which is devastating the communities in West Africa that have been afflicted. But, in football, it’s the hysterical fear of the disease which is far more virulent and damaging. Or, to put it another way, football is suffering from a bad case of ‘They think it’s all ebola’.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. He will be speaking at the Battle Satellite debate You can’t say that! Free speech in an age of offence at the Free Word Centre in London on Tuesday 4 November. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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Topics Politics


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