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Ebola outbreak not football's first health scare

Members of the Guinea youth football team L'Etoile de Guinee made a plea to stop the Ebola epidemic earlier this week.
Members of the Guinea youth football team L'Etoile de Guinee made a plea to stop the Ebola epidemic earlier this week.

We have all seen the T-shirt with the catch phrase "Football is Life - Everything else is just detail," splashed across it. Most of us have smiled knowingly at it, because the game can be all-consuming, without considering the real impact of the statement. Football is not life, but there are cases in which it can lead to death, and the current Ebola outbreak is one of them.

The disease, believed to be caused by nonhuman primates, is incurable. It has already killed more than 1,000 people in West Africa, including some of the doctors trying to fight it. Its consequences have included the closing of borders and the cancellation of some activities considered commonplace in daily life: meeting in public places, travel, playing football.

Earlier this month, the Seychelles team was forced to forfeit an African Nations Cup (ANC) qualifier against Sierra Leone after their government refused to allow the Leone Stars onto the island for fear of spreading the virus. Effectively, that allowed Sierra Leone passage into the group stage of the 2015 ANC qualification process, but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) have taken measures to ensure there are no more walkover wins.

- Report: Ebola fear may see Togo game moved
- Report: Sierra Leone cancels football due to Ebola
- Report: Sierra Leone barred from travelling

The continent's governing body asked both Sierra Leone and Guinea to move their home matches until mid-September. Guinea are due to host Togo and Sierra Leone are scheduled to host the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so both will have to find new venues for those matches. Sierra Leone is one of two countries, the other being Liberia, who have already suspended all domestic football activities to prevent the spread of the virus. But this is not first time infectious diseases have interrupted play, with at least three other high-profile cases in the past six years.

Zimbabwe's 2008 cholera epidemic collided with the country's economic collapse and crashed through the country in a destructive wave, killing more than 3,000 people. It was caused by a lack of access to safe drinking water, and although it affected all 10 Zimbabwean provinces, it was most prominent in the south, close to the South African border at Beitbridge, and struck towards the end of the football season.

The Underhill Football Club was hit to the point that they could not raise enough players for a league match against Monomatapa, who were challenging for the title at the time. In the end the fixture was replayed and Monomatapa could not be stopped on their way to the trophy.

The following year the swine flu swept its way across the headlines and took some footballers with it. The most high-profile case was United States superstar Landon Donovan, who played a full 90 minutes for his national team against Mexico and another 45 minutes of a Major League Soccer game for the LA Galaxy before he even knew he was infected. Donovan described it as "like having the flu," but for players elsewhere in the world it was much more serious.

In Mexico, stadiums were left empty as authorities attempted to stem the spread of the virus by banning fans from entering stadium for three matches that April. At the Norway Cup, which was played in July that year, there were serious concerns when an African player came down with swine flu and at least four other participants were thought to be infected. In September, there was talk that the Chinese Super League would have to be suspended because of the prevalence of the disease. One team, Chongquin Lifan, were confined to their training base in an attempt at quarantine after 11 of their players tested positive for the virus.

Then there is malaria, the disease most often associated with Africa, where footballers including Didier Drogba have campaigned for its prevention. It did not strike close to home in 2011, though, when it impacted players from Haiti. Their under-17 side had to withdraw from the CONCACAF U-17 Championship after at least three members of their delegation were found to have contracted the disease.

The Haitian team were already in Jamaica, where the tournament was being hosted, when the trio were diagnosed. It was recommended that they exempt themselves from competition and return home where the mosquito-carried disease was wreaking havoc. In the aftermath of the earthquake which ravaged the nation in January 2010, the country struggled with numerous outbreaks, which served as a timely reminder that there really is more to life than football.


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