Where will the problematic African Cup of Nations be held next year?
Just three months out from the tournament it’s still uncertain because of Ebola, and could even come down to the Confederation of African Football drawing the name of a country out of a hat.
Morocco denied reports on Thursday it has withdrawn as the host of the 16-team event, but wants it postponed from its planned dates in January and February because of fears over the spread of Ebola which is surging through three countries in West Africa.
A postponement won’t work for CAF, which insists the Jan. 17-Feb. 8 dates must be honored.
“CAF has registered (Morocco’s) request and wishes to state that there are no changes of the schedules of its competitions and events,” CAF said, adding the dates of the Cup of Nations had never been changed in its 57-year history and it wouldn’t start now.
If Morocco still refuses, CAF has asked at least two other countries if they can be on standby to host at short notice, according to Ghana’s sports minister and a letter from CAF to the South Africa Football Association that was published in the South African media. Egypt has also been mentioned as a possible stand-in host.
In the letter to SAFA, CAF says if Morocco doesn’t hold the cup and more than one other country wants to step in, “a draw will be made” by its executive committee, reducing the process to a lottery. In the letter, CAF said “this possibility would be valid only if Morocco refuses to maintain the dates of the tournament currently agreed.”
Morocco’s information minister and government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi said on Thursday that it still wanted to host, but not as early as January. Morocco feels large groups of football supporters and other travelers from football-mad West Africa — where Ebola has killed more than 4,500 people in its worst outbreak ever and is not yet contained — would put the North African country at risk.
“There is no way we can be lenient with the health and safety of the Moroccan citizens,” Khalfi said at a government media briefing, repeating Morocco’s request for a postponement.
He didn’t suggest any new dates but Morocco appears committed to delaying, leading to a possible stalemate with CAF.
Morocco health minister Houssaine Louardi, who advised Moroccan sports authorities to ask for the postponement, said this week: “Football is just a game and we can’t play with the health of Moroccans. There is no zero risk when it comes to Ebola.”
CAF has canceled all football in the three worst affected Ebola countries — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — until further notice, but says it is following the advice of the World Health Organization that travel bans will not help curtail the outbreak, and the tournament in Morocco can go ahead.
CAF President Issa Hayatou will travel to Morocco next month to meet officials over their concerns.
So, Ghana and South Africa — and likely others — are now considering if they want the tournament.
Ghana sports minister Mahama Ayariga confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that his West African nation and others had been approached.
Should Morocco back out, South Africa would be the most suitable after stepping in at short notice to host the 2013 Cup of Nations when Libya couldn’t. It has Africa’s best stadiums and infrastructure after its hosting of the continent’s first World Cup in 2010, yet that might mean nothing if it becomes a blind draw.
SAFA President Danny Jordaan told the AP it was too early for South Africa to commit to hosting before the talks between Morocco and CAF next month.
“We have to wait to let the process unfold,” he said.
CAF is also struggling to find a host for the 2017 African Cup after conflict-ravaged Libya withdrew because of security concerns, meaning that bidding process had to be restarted from scratch.
That one won’t be a lottery, however.