CAPE TOWN, South Africa – It started when the small Indian Ocean island of Seychelles refused entry to Sierra Leone’s soccer squad, fearing that the deadly Ebola virus would arrive from West Africa along with the players.
The decision by Seychelles health authorities two weeks ago gave its team no choice but to forfeit the game against Sierra Leone and withdraw from qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s main football competition.
“We cannot let down our guard,” Seychelles health commissioner Dr. Jude Gedeon said after Sierra Leone’s players were prevented from leaving Kenya for the flight to the Seychelles. Some had already boarded their plane before being informed they wouldn’t be allowed to make the flight.
The Confederation of African Football was powerless to act.
Sierra Leone and Liberia, two of the four soccer-mad West African countries affected by the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded, have now stopped all football in their countries. Health officials say there is a lethal risk in allowing people to gather in large groups.
Togo said it would not travel to Guinea, another Ebola-affected country, for a game at the start of the final round of Africa Cup qualifying in the first week of September. That forced CAF to relocate that match.
The disease has no licensed vaccine, has killed over 1,000 people in West Africa at the World Health Organization’s latest count and has spread through three countries and into a fourth, Nigeria. Controlling it takes priority over sport.
But if other nations follow the lead of Seychelles and Togo, as many as 18 games in the final qualifying competition starting next month could be affected. The qualifiers determine which teams get the 16 spots in the tournament, which is held every two years.
The 2015 Africa Cup will be held in Morocco in January and February.
The CAF is facing a logistical nightmare over the fixtures involving Guinea, Sierra Leone and African champion Nigeria in September, October and November. Liberia is not part of the qualifiers.
Those games might have to be moved to other sites or canceled.
“We continue to monitor the situation of the Ebola outbreak,” CAF said in a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday, promising to clarify in the coming days its revised plans for the qualifiers.
CAF said it was in contact with WHO and authorities in the countries affected. The CAF confirmed that Sierra Leone, where over 300 people have died in the outbreak, can’t host games.
Sierra Leone’s government banned all football there until further notice. Sierra Leone wants to play its ‘home’ matches against Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Congo in Accra, Ghana, CAF said.
Ghana hasn’t yet confirmed if it’ll allow that to happen. Some countries don’t want to allow people from Ebola-affected countries to enter.
Sierra Leone Football Association spokesman Abu Bakarr Kamara told the AP that it would get WHO emergency health certificates for home-based players to show they had not contracted Ebola.
Unlike Sierra Leone, Guinea, the suspected source of the Ebola outbreak, says it still wants to play host to matches.
Guinea is the only one of the four countries not to have declared a public health emergency despite the deaths of 373 people there – the most of all the countries.
Opponents say they don’t want to travel to Guinea.
“We are scared by the situation prevailing in that zone,” the Togo Football Federation said.
Guinea’s football federation said on Tuesday that it had been instructed by CAF to move its home game against Togo, although it said it hasn’t chosen a venue.
The move by the Seychelles government last month to block Sierra Leone’s squad set a possible precedent for countries to refuse to host the Sierra Leone and Guinea teams. The bans could spread to Nigeria if Ebola spreads rapidly there.
The nine countries set to host teams from Ebola-hit areas haven’t yet said they’ll refuse to let players and officials into their country. If they banned players from the four nations, it would throw the Africa Cup into complete chaos.
The CAF doesn’t want to wait, and says it will announce later this week details of a plan to keep the qualifiers going.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, Blame Ekoue in Lome, Togo and Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana contributed to this report.