Togo will not take part, but the show will go on. That was the message last night from Angola, host country of the African Cup of Nations, which is scheduled to start tonight in the capital city Luanda. The biennial tournament, despite being subject to calls for abandonment following the deadly assault on the Togo national team, will kick off as planned when the hosts face Mali at the Estadio 11 de Novembro this evening.
Three people died as a direct result of Friday's machine-gun attack on the Togo team bus shortly after it crossed the border from the team's training base in the Republic of Congo on route to the venue of their first match in Cabinda, an oil-rich Angolan province plagued by separatist violence. Togo were last night expected to withdraw from the competition even as officials were attempting to negotiate with the Togolese team in a bid to get them to stay in the three-week-long continental competition.
The Angolan government have reportedly spent US$600 million (Dh2.2bn) on constructing new stadiums and developing infrastructure ahead of the football showpiece and the country's sports minister Goncalves Muandumba said that "despite [the attacks], the championship will go on". Likewise, Suleiman Habuba, director of communications for the Confederation of African Football (CAF), said the attack came as a shock.
"Our first priority is the safety of the players, but the tournament will go ahead," he said. Togo's players, however - who were due to play Ghana tomorrow in Cabinda - were adamant they would not be competing, despite Angolan insistence that the hosts will step up security. Midfielder Alaixys Romao said his side were pulling out of the competition and wanted other teams to follow suit. "We're talking to the other teams in our group to try to convince them to boycott too," he said.
The striker Jonathan Ayite added: "Even if you bring the president and even [Barack] Obama himself, we're leaving immediately, we're going home. Ghana and the Ivory Coast are in solidarity with us." Angolan Prime Minister Paulo Kassoma, having met with CAF president Issa Hayatou last night, said he believed Friday's attack was an isolated incident and assured teams that their safety was guaranteed. The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, whose has two players in Angola, Alex Song and Emmanuel Eboue, said the tournament should go ahead. "I don't believe you can stop any competition because of an incident, because that will reward the people who make those incidents [ie militants]," he said. "That will mean that any competition in the world is stoppable at any time.
"The second thing is that I believe the international federations have to make sure the security is good enough for the competition. You have to leave it up to the players to have the possibility, if they feel insecure or scared, to leave the competition. I personally feel the competition has to go on." @Email:email@example.com