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John Leicester: After deadly attack, injustice for African soccer

PARIS — Sports fans, grab a pen and paper or log into e-mail and send this message to the heartless bureaucrats who run African soccer: "Sirs, shame on you for totally mishandling the terrorist attack on Togo's team."

Their decision this weekend to ban Togo from the next two editions of the Africa Cup of Nations, punishing the shell-shocked squad for pulling out of this year's competition, heaps injustice upon death.

It multiplies the suffering of Togolese soccer players still haunted by the machine-gunning of their bus on Jan. 8, as they were en route to their matches. The attack killed three people, wounded eight and rendered utterly meaningless and irrelevant everything that happened on the field in the tournament that ended this Sunday.

Nearly one month on, Togo captain Emmanuel Adebayor says the memories give him nightmares every night. He found the perfect choice of words to condemn the banning of his team. "This decision is monstrous," he told French sports daily L'Equipe.

Like petty apparatchiks everywhere, the Confederation of African Football conjured up a rule to try to justify the unjustifiable.

Its statement said Togo was banned "in conformity with article 78" — as if that somehow makes it right.

It provided a Web link to the now infamous regulation. The rule says teams that withdraw at short notice from the biennial tournament can be suspended for two following editions and can also be fined.

It says nothing about the need for compassion and common sense.

Climbing on the highest but lamest horse it could find, CAF portrayed the punishment as an effort to preserve the independence of African soccer. It said the Togolese players themselves wanted to compete in the tournament despite the attack on their bus but that Togo's government forced them home. Such political interference in soccer matters breaks CAF rules, it argued.

Talk about picking the wrong moment to take a stand. Trying to prevent politicians from meddling in sports might be commendable — in other situations. Not this time. Not when people have been killed. Not when Abebayor notes that Togo assistant coach Abalo Amelete was being buried on the same day that CAF's executive committee made its decision.

"As we speak, his loved ones are at the cemetery," Adebayor said. "Can you imagine their reaction when they find out?"

No surprise then that the Manchester City forward reserves his bitterest words for CAF president Issa Hayatou. From the moment the gunmen opened fire on Togo's bus to now, the organization that Hayatou leads has acted poorly.

"He must clear off," Adebayor was quoted as saying. "The only thing Mr. Hayatou and his friends know how to do is to award the organization of the Africa Cup to countries that give them the most money."

Making this worse is that CAF, in its statement, recognized that Togo's dazed and confused players were in two minds about whether they should compete in the tournament following the attack by suspected separatists in the oil-producing Cabinda region of Angola, which hosted this cup.

Some players initially said that they no longer wanted to take the field. Who can blame them? Others later said that they wanted to play to honor the dead and wounded.

Togo President Faure Gnassingbe apparently tipped the balance by calling Adebayor and urging the team to come back.

"We have to mourn our dead. We go back home to do this," Adebayor said as he boarded the presidential plane sent by Togo's government.

Could the players have refused? Should they have played even while their goalkeeper Kodjovi "Dodji" Obilale lay with bullet fragments in his stomach in a South African hospital? Should Adebayor simply have ignored the "deep despair" he said he felt after the Togo team's media officer, Stanislas Ocloo, died in his arms and focused instead on the business — so inconsequential in comparison to life and death — of scoring goals?

Only a bully would punish Togo for not having done so. Instead of doing a service to African soccer, barring the players from the Africa Cup for the next four years seems mean, cold and grossly unfair.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org.