By Paul Gardner
What on earth is FIFA waiting for? The reports out of Nigeria make it alarmingly clear that to stage the Under-17 World Cup there Oct. 24-Nov. 15, as
currently scheduled, would be exposing the young players to considerable risk.
When a high-powered FIFA delegation visited Nigeria last month to assess how the preparations for the
tournament were coming along, the party did not even visit one of the proposed venues. To quote from FIFA's official website Of May 21: "The venue of Warri could not be inspected over the past days
due to security concerns in the vicinity of the city and the Delta State region in general."
Frankly, that ought to have been enough for FIFA to pull the plug right then. It did not do
so. Instead of showing concern about the perils of guerilla warfare, the FIFA committee was more concerned that the Nigerians weren't looking good in getting their stadiums ready.
Nigerians were warned that they had to shape up and get those stadiums ready, or they might lose the tournament. Another FIFA delegation -- like the first one, led by Concacaf's Jack Warner -- will
return within a week to see whether things are looking any better.
One is left gaping at the lack of concern here for the safety of the boys destined to play in this tournament. The
security situation has gotten seriously worse. Yesterday came a statement from MEND -- the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta -- threatening to widen its fight (it is seeking to gain local
control of the region's substantial oil reserves) and it issued a direct threat to the soccer tournament. According to an AFP news report, MEND "took this opportunity to advise FIFA to have a rethink
about Nigeria hosting the U-17 World Cup tournament at this time, as the safety of international players and visitors cannot be guaranteed due to the current unrest."
I cannot see how
there can be any justification for prolonging the idea that the competition can be staged by Nigeria. The issue is no longer whether the stadiums are ready or not -- it is now a matter of lives being
put at risk.
Of particular interest to the Americans, whose team is among the qualifiers, is that, according to MEND, its latest target for sabotage attacks were facilities owned by the
American oil company Chevron.
Whether the games can then be moved elsewhere in time for the October/November dates, who knows. Such things have been done before. In 1991 this same
tournament was switched from Peru, where there was fear of a cholera outbreak, to Italy. While in 1995, Nigeria was again a problem and the under-20 World Cup had to be moved to Qatar "at little more
than a moment's notice" as then FIFA president Joao Havelange put it. While Concacaf, earlier this year, canceled the second half of its under-17 championship in Mexico because of fears of swine flu.
What threatens in Nigeria seems to me worse than any of those crises. Yet FIFA dawdles. It is possible that individual countries might feel compelled to withdraw their teams -- though as
things stand at the moment, with Nigeria still the official site of the tournament, that would presumably bring down a heavy punishment from FIFA.
Beyond that are the families of the
individual players, who should be fully apprised of the risks involved, and who can then decide for themselves whether they wish their sons to travel to Nigeria.
But for FIFA to allow
things to reach that point would be unconscionable. This is a situation where FIFA needs to take the lead -- indeed, should already have done so -- by shifting the tournament.