What can be done about the tragedy in Angola? As that country was preparing to host the African Nations Cup, it was suddenly, and terrifyingly, made clear that the safety of the participating teams cannot be guaranteed.
The gunfire attack on the Togo team bus -- which left at least two members of the Togo delegation dead, plus two players wounded -- is a shocking moment. Shocking, most of all, to the Togo team and to the families involved.
Should one go any further than that? Is that not enough? The personal level is always the smallest level, the most human, and by being exactly that, by being so intimate, it is surely the most emotional and the most important.
But soccer -- which is in the frontline here, as the global game -- has for years now been distancing itself from these minor matters. It is now claiming a more exalted position in the world, one that it surely does not warrant. Its leaders -- who should know better -- have been slowly and methodically inflating its importance. They have got us all thinking -- nay, believing -- that soccer is not to be seen merely as a game. It is rather a social activity of great significance in the everyday life of whole populations. And therefore of whole countries.
Well, maybe. There is obviously a certain amount of truth in all of that. More so, if you add in the commercial importance. The trouble, for me, starts when delusions of grandeur set in amongst the soccer bosses and they act as though soccer is not just an important activity, but is the most important activity. Religion? Politics? Marriage? Family life? Forget them, all of them.
So we arrive at that nastiest of all attitudes, so neatly expressed back at the beginning of the 1980s by Liverpool's former coach, the Scot Bill Shankly, that soccer is not simply a matter of life and death, it is "much, much more important" than that.
I'm not blaming Shankly -- who no doubt wished nothing more than to dramatize his love (or, to use that awful word, his "passion") for the game. Nor does it matter whether Shankly was trying to be funny or not, his sentiment -- a malignly mischievous one -- is now widely accepted in soccer circles.
Insidiously, it has grown to the point where we now have the sport believing that it does not have to obey the laws of the countries within which it operates. I refer to FIFA's ongoing tussle with the European Community; in which it claims that soccer should have a "special status." Even more arrogant is FIFA's attitude toward certain countries when it refuses to accept that their own governments can have any say in the running of their domestic game, and that only a FIFA-approved body can be in charge.
A sport too big for its boots? At the very top there is the leader of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, who now travels the world as an international statesman, who mixes with the world's political leaders, who constantly talks of the role that sport can play in making the world a better place to live in. One even hears talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.
All well and good -- but what is lacking from all of that is the realization that adopting such a universal role inevitably takes soccer solidly into the arena of politics. No one can be in any doubt that the decision to stage this year's World Cup in South Africa was a political, rather than a sporting, decision. We are at the point where soccer definitely is more important than a mere sport -- but only because its leaders have decided to make it so. They are making a big mistake.
One of the consequences can be seen in Angola. FIFA and CAF -- the African Confederation -- have allowed a major tournament to go ahead in a country that can be said to be "at war," something that FIFA's own regulations do not allow.
They did the same thing last year under almost identical circumstances when they allowed -- or rather insisted -- that the U-17 World Cup go ahead in Nigeria, despite the fact that part of the country was trying to cope with an armed insurrection, despite the fact that the insurgents had issued warnings that they would not be ceasing their activities.
The competition went ahead. The players -- remember, these were 17-year-old boys -- were risked ... for what? Because "the game" is more important than the boys' lives? The soccer bosses got away with that one -- the tournament was mercifully played without incident.
Now an identical situation has arisen in Angola. Another group of insurgents, another pre-tournament warning, and another decision by FIFA and CAF to ignore the danger. This time with a deadly result.
Now we learn that a few deaths and appalling trauma for the survivors are not as important as the game. Even the Togo players are caught up in the madness, and vote to continue playing ... as a tribute to their dead! But the Togo president has ordered them home, which seems to me the correct thing to do. Technically, it might be possible for FIFA or CAF to fine and suspend Togo for dropping out -- but would they dare?
The tournament of course has not been canceled (distastefully, one must also consider all the commercial and television contracts). The security, one assumes, will be greatly enhanced. Once again, players are being put at risk -- this time even after the reality of a deadly incident. But the show must go on -- if only to show soccer's huge importance, that it is now much too lofty a matter to be diverted by a few deaths.
Soccer ... more important than life and death?