Just over two weeks ago, writing about the decision of the Togo government to withdraw its team from the African Nations Cup (this after its bus had been shot up by insurgents), I had this to say: "Technically, it might be possible for FIFA or CAF to fine and suspend Togo for dropping out -- but would they dare?"
I started that sentence with the word "technically" as an expression of my feeling that what followed was, in the real world, not likely to happen -- a sentiment reinforced by the final phrase "Would they dare?"
Wrong again. After decades of observing and analyzing the workings of this sport of soccer, it seems that I have yet to face up to the limitless capability of soccer's leaders to take a bad situation and make it worse.
Yes, CAF, the African soccer confederation, has dared. Its president, Issa Hayatou, has announced that Togo is to be fined $50,000 and banned from the next two editions of the tournament.
Togo -- or more specifically, Togolese soccer and its national team players -- is to be punished for having its bus machine-gunned, for having two members of its delegation killed, for having the reserve team goalkeeper rushed to hospital with a bullet in his spine, and for its players being traumatized.
Not that Hayatou and CAF have explained matters like that. The charge against Togolese soccer is that, in obeying its prime minister's call to return home, it permitted government interference in the sport, something that both CAF and FIFA prohibit.
Hayatou has already been met with a wave of criticism for his decision, with the words cruel, inhumane, stupid being used -- Emmanuel Adebayor, Togo's most famous player, who was trapped in the bullet-ridden bus, has called it "Outrageous."
It is all of those things, a crass, insensitive administrative decision. I might speculate on the thinking that went into it -- because it must have included, either explicitly or implicitly, this sort of thing ... well, after all, the Togolese killed were not actually players -- even though one player was seriously injured -- it would have been different if a player had been killed, or maybe just one wouldn't be enough, maybe there should be a rule about that, stipulating how many players have to be killed to justify a team's withdrawal, maybe two or three would be enough, but then again they'd have to be first-team starters, not reserves ...
But all those unpleasantries can be conveniently swept aside by the escape to bureaucracy -- simply apply the regulation, regardless. Which amounts to the "we're only obeying orders" defense, one that brings with it memories of all the worst horrors of the 20th century.
Routine bureaucracy seems to have triumphed. But one has a further reason for wondering why the shooting was handled that way. CAF's own regulations allow it to accept a late withdrawal for reasons of force majeure. It hardly seems necessary to argue that forcesuffered by the Togo team was of a very majeure variety.
The reason, I suspect, is arrogance. You can chalk this one up to the arrogance that goes with FIFA's insistence -- duly parroted by CAF -- that there must be no government interference in the running of soccer -- anywhere in the world.
So it is the Togolese government that has erred here, by ordering the Togo team to come home -- even after the players had indicated that they would play on. Of all things, the players chose to obey their own government, and not CAF.
This is the clearest example we have had so far of soccer's arrogance, its assumption of powers that it insists -- maybe even believes -- should supersede those of a country's government and its laws.
What the Togolese players should have done, it would seem, was to tell their own prime minister, Gilbert Houngbo, and his government to get lost, and obey instead the dictates of one Issa Hayatou, a Cameroonian, and his group of soccer executives.
This flagrant assumption of supra-national powers by soccer has been edging forward for some time now. With the Togo incident, we see Hayatou treating the Togolese government with total disrespect, contempt even.
That is bad enough. But the suspicion must hover that Togo is being humiliated in this way because it is a small country with no political or soccer or -- I suppose I must add, commercial -- clout. Would, for instance, FIFA dare to treat Germany or Italy in the same cavalier way? Very doubtful.
Togo will appeal this disgusting decision. It won't get justice from CAF, which is hardly likely to admit that Hayatou has made a horrendous mess of things, and to back down. A further appeal to CAS, the extra-legal Court of Arbitration for Sports, looks a better bet.
The best solution here would be for FIFA to assert itself and over-rule CAF. FIFA must know that Hayatou has gone too far -- but, sadly, he's only gone too far down the path that Sepp Blatter has been pioneering for years now, that of making soccer a world power above the law.
The notion of keeping governments -- i.e. politics -- out of soccer has its merits, but it has gotten out of hand. Time for FIFA to take a close look at where things are heading -- and to consider that another slogan -- keep soccer out of politics -- might be a better guide for future behavior.