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Brave Obilale battling back in spite of African football

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Piers Edwards | 16:22 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011

His lifelong dream shattered in a split-second. The blink of an eye that Togolese goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale would rather forget - but simply can't.

"I remember the moment very clearly," he tells this week's World Football programme on the BBC World Service. "The atmosphere and group dynamic among the squad was really good, we were young, and everyone was ready for the Nations Cup.

"We were going there to do something special."

As the Togolese bus made its way through the northern Angolan enclave of Cabinda, the high spirits were being captured on film by press officer Stanislas Ocloo as he roamed the bus. He never finished his documentary. He died.

"All of a sudden we heard these gunshots," Obilale, 26, recalls one year on from the traumatic events. "From the first shots, I was hit in the back. I took two bullets."

"It was like a war film."

It's not stretching the imagination to say that Obilale's life was saved by Togo's team doctor, who administered him with morphine to dull his pain.

In the chaos, some on the bus thought he was dead. In the hours afterwards, it was erroneously reported around the world that he was.

By many accounts, he should have been - but shortly after the attack, he clung onto life in an Angolan hospital and has since willed himself onto to a "miraculous recovery".

"In the corridor, I saw two bodies under a white sheet - those of Abalo and Stanislas," he has previously said. "I struggled not to close my eyes. I didn't want to die."

Someone once said that man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit - and Obilale is another prime example of the infinite number of natural-born survivors who have inhabited this planet.

Having undergone initial surgery in Angola, he was flown to Johannesburg where he was operated on again - after which he spent 48 hours in a coma.

Upon awaking, Obilale discovered that the nerve endings at the bottom of his spinal cord had been shattered, meaning he couldn't move his legs nor feel his feet. He was only alive thanks to his excellent physical condition.

It's almost too sad to recall, but Obilale saw the 2010 Nations Cup as the springboard for his fledgling career.

Obilale (centre) was part of Togo's squad at the 2006 World Cup

Obilale (centre) was part of Togo's squad at the 2006 World Cup [Getty Images]

Playing at the Nations Cup as Togo's number one - after years of being the understudy - was supposed to be his big break.

He may have only been playing for lowly Pontivy in the fourth tier of French football, but all who knew a man they repeatedly describe as a leader was destined for greater things.

So too Samuel Eto'o, who complimented Obilale's display after Cameroon had faced the Togolese in 2009.

But this is one of many memories that Obilale has chosen to blot out - just like football in fact (he did not watch a minute of this year's World Cup despite having sat on the bench in Germany four years earlier).

He's certainly not the first man to say that the sport is rotten in recent times - but Obilale's experiences do bring into sharp contrast another unwanted side to the 'beautiful game'.

"I now realise that people are worthless," he laments. "We're nothing, we're like grass.
"The day you get yourself burned or you wither away, you just become dry grass - no good to anyone. When you're on two legs, everyone's running after you. They day you fall down, there's nobody there any more."

You don't have to scratch deep to understand his anger, for he's been let down at most steps of the way.

The Togolese travelled into Angola by bus to save money, he says, and this initial problem was then hideously compounded by the Confederation of African Football's decision to ban Togo from the next two Nations Cups for leaving the tournament (which has since been rescinded).

Two months later, with his football career over, Obilale waited to board a plane home from Johannesburg. But his heart sank yet further as he realised that no one was prepared to pay for the flight.

Certainly not the Angolan authorities, despite their country producing an estimated two million dollars' worth of oil per day. Nor Caf, who have still - remarkably, as my BBC colleague Richard Connelly points out - never spoken to Obilale.

In the end, despite offers from both the French federation and Adebayor, the Togolese federation eventually paid - but only after Obilale had missed his daughter's birthday, a sequence of events that prompted further woe.

There have been good guys. The president of his club Pontivy has been a great help, even if Obilale's contract has now expired. And, even though he may polarise opinion, Adebayor has been an undisputed hero, providing constant support - both moral and financial - for Obilale and his family.

Though covering half of his astronomical medical costs, the Togolese federation has been slow in coming forward to help their player - even neglecting, whether accidentally, or not, to invite him to this weekend's memorial service in the capital Lome (where Obilale grew up).

While the behaviour of those in power has raised serious question marks, Obilale has been most touched by the kindness of total strangers. He has received letters from all around the world (with only Real Madrid among the top clubs sending one), as well as the generosity of locals sensitive to his plight.

"It's people I've never met before who are doing the most" he explains. "And I find that a bit sad."

Obilale himself is fighting on. Despite his disability, he's doing a computer course, taking a diploma in sports teaching, talks of opening a restaurant - and is even set to publish a book on his life.

But with no house of his own, rent to pay and mouths to feed, a shortage of funds is likely to become a problem. The French federation have donated as has Fifa, who have given Obilale a one-off lump sum of $100,000. But Caf - who many believe should bear the responsibility as tournament organisers - have yet to do so.

This is all well and good - but wouldn't an annual payment be more practical?


  • Comment number 1.

    this is a really touching piece to comment on but i am also an African and i feel that more should be done by Caf to help Obilale. and if this issue is not resolved, even if this might be a bit extreme players should boycott international matches to show their love for the game and one another

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Manunitedforever the race issue is a red herring. The tournament was organised by CAF. The Togolese Football Federation (FTF) should have insured its squad members. If it is true that it ignored guidelines and went by road through a known area of insurgency it was also reckless.

    It nice that FIFA gave him some money but the responsibility for his care and rehabilitation lies squarely with the FTF and possibly CAF (which covered itself with dishonour throughout this sorry saga).

  • Comment number 4.

    I fail to see what any of this has to do with the colour of Obilale's skin.
    Did you actually read any of the story? The TOGOLESE tried to save money by going through Cabinda (a politically unstable area) on buses, then the TOGOLESE football federation wouldn't pay for his treatment OR his journey back from South Africa. The Confederation of African Football haven't even contacted him!!

    This poor guy has been unjustifiably let down at every turn by African Football, and all you take from it is that a white man might have been treated differently? Lame.

  • Comment number 5.

    A story that I havn't heard much about since it happened which when reading the article seems shocking that more support hasn't been given not only to Obilale but to everyone elsed effected.

    A single payment of 100,000 does not seem a lot in comparison of what some people in the UK can clain for accidents less life threatening or freuduent.

    To me a single payment always seems more of a pay off rather than support in situations such as these, as was mentioned in the article offering financial support annually until Obilale's financial needs are resolved so that he to continue with his life seem only fair and it should be officials closer involved in this situation who should be helping most not as Obilale said 'people I've never met before'

    The fact that the return plane fare wasn't even covered is disgusting.

    Hoping that things improve over time for both him and his family.

  • Comment number 6.

    Piers, do you know where or who i could send a letter of support to Kodjovi? I know its not much but he needs to know that there are people out there who are thinking of him at this difficult time.

  • Comment number 7.

    When CAF's initial reaction was to ban Togo for two editions, how do you expect those senile top guns to understand the fact that a young whose career had been cut short needs help. All that matters to them is their bloated ego.

  • Comment number 8.

    it is shocking that Togo were punished for their withdrawal, no compassion has been shown by the CAF at all over this incident, disgusting.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm really sad for the Keeper and the development of African Football.
    Why? If what I read from BBC website is anything to go by, that according to FIFA, the organisers are responsible for the tournerment, then, FIFA is only doing a humanitarian work in this case. I think therefore that CAF, Angola and Togo should be held responsible for the care of this humble guy. In that, the security, safety and the consequencies of whatever happened, irrespective of whether someone ignored the warning or not should be bore by the organisers. Though Togo might have ignored the rules, This guy should not be left to his own fate or for Togo alone. This' because it's CAF that awarded the hosting of the tournerment to Angola, and CAF itself knew that Angola was very dangerous country to host such a tournerment and hence the warning. Therefore, if we're talking about somebody breaking the rules, then in the first place, CAF brook the rules, for it's the responsibility of the organisers, CAF and then Angola to ensure that the security and safety of the host nation is good and that the participation nations would be safe. They clearly new that Angola was not safe enough at the time of awarding the tournerment and hence the warning they issued out to the members of the confederation.
    So CAF cannot say that Togo brook the rules and that they are not going to take part of the responsibilty of the guy whose life has been distroyed by the consequencies of their own decision to award Angola the right to host the tournerment.
    I hope that CAF and also Angola, Togo in particular would contribute a significant amount of money to Obilale and his immediate family living. Actually, I'm truely disappointed by both CAF and Angola, also Togo. Thanks

  • Comment number 11.

    It's appalling that this story has only come to light now.
    I remember watching in sadness and shock when the news broke, with all the concern then turning to the summer!
    The African cup of nations has grown more and more exciting in the previous years, with many of the premier leagues current stars being scouted from it. Drogba springs to mind.
    Whilst Adebayor has been a hero, it should be expected as a former team mate and on his salary.
    When you see the Multi million deals be woven at city, reality hits hard.
    Whilst this story is tragic and I thoroughly agree CAF should be doing their utmost to insure the welfare of the player (and in future competition), accidents frequently befall lower league players and whether we have heard of them or not they are never to receive compensation either.

    CAF and Fifas priority should be to prevent such events occurring in the future; especially when the next world cups are being held in brazil and Russia. We can't forget that jenson button nearly suffered a similar fate were it not for his driver, when leaving the grand prix circuit.
    Footballers wealth makes for an easy target in poverty stricken countries.

  • Comment number 12.

    This is just another of those horror stories you read coming out of this great continent.

    Togo were on their way to play in a tournament organized by CAF, question, when are they responsible for players security?

    I am amazed at the behavior of CAF, no sensitivity at all, the Togolese F.A and the Angola F.a should also give more help.

    $ 100k as a one off payment, for what giving blood for his country?

    There should be a lifetime annuity that will help him more.

  • Comment number 13.

    What i would like to know and what is not made clear in this article is what exactly is the extent of Obilales disability? is he wheelchair bound with no possibility of recovering the use of his limbs through therapy? i would have appreciated if the journalist had been clearer explaining in mored detail what his injury is and how it effects his day to day life.

  • Comment number 14.

    Andrew - the article doesn't really go into the effects of the injury but does mention:

    "Upon awaking, Obilale discovered that the nerve endings at the bottom of his spinal cord had been shattered, meaning he couldn't move his legs nor feel his feet. He was only alive thanks to his excellent physical condition."

    I would imagine that Obilale, being the brave soul that he is, prefers not to dwell on his disabilities but since you bring it up: he will be paralysed from the waist down. Destruction of nerve endings at the bottom of the spinal cord meaning he can't move his legs or feel his feet will mean he will be unable to walk and unable to look after himself properly. These nerve endings don't grow back and heal themselves so presumably he will be stuck like this til he dies.

    I applaud the article for NOT dwelling on his disability, about which nothing can now be done, but on the appalling treatment he has received from CAF and FTF, where amends can still be made. There are far too many articles published that wallow in pity and sympathy for those who are injured or ill, far too few that celebrate the fighting spirit of those determined to have a rewarding existence despite the trials that life (and in this case the local and continental football federations) throw at them.

    I wouldn't have been surprised if Obilale had been brought before CAF or FTF for bringing them into disrepute for being injured, for complaining about his mistreatment...

    On a separate note, it is interesting for me, as a Manchester City fan, to see that Adebayor is helping Obilale out. Adebayor hasn't been the same since the attack and I am of the opinion that Adebayor may need therapy himself to recover from the trauma and get back to his former self. Post traumatic stress after something like this is absolutely natural, not everyone who was on the bus will suffer from it but those who do should definitely get treatment - it works and will help them deal with what happened and help put their ongoing resultant problems to bed.

  • Comment number 15.

    "When you play football you have to protect the main people - the players." - Sepp Blatter just this week.

    FIFA may have given 100k to the player but where is the pressure on CAF, Angola and Togo to sort this out? Blatter is willing to move a world cup and re-schedule the European football season for Qatar, but doesn't seem to be doing anything about a player who has almost been killed just on his way to a game.

  • Comment number 16.

    I Hope he does well in life. Im an Arsenal fan but after reading about Adebayor and his support, I can say I have more respect for Emmanuel. Good luck to him and if he is in Turkey he has a place to stay.

  • Comment number 17.

    I think this is a really Touching piece.
    I also think it is so dis-heartening to hear that the people that should be supporting him, haven't!
    Some groups of people only seem to think about there own pocket, and not the people that they in reality should have been protecting. Its rediculous!
    It is good to see that even though luck hasn't been on his side, he has kept his chin up and fought on. "well played son, we need more people like this"
    As for the money he was "helped" with this should be a yearly thing, this way he can follow another dream that he obviously has.

    I'm going to stop before i get even more carried away

  • Comment number 18.

    Great piece.

    CAF has already thoroughly covered itself in disrepute from the very beginning of this tragic story. This incident thoroughly compromised the Cup of Nations in my opinion, as everything that came after was pretend, with the withdrawal of Togo and the effect of fewer group matches on the overall competition.

    What I propose is, on either 8 January (the day of the attack) or 8 October (Obilalé’s birthday), FIFA organize a series of testimonials on every continent, proceeds of which will create a fund which will ensure Obilalé’s medical care and professional development costs such that his needs will be met for life. His life was drastically changed in service to football, so football owes him.

    If CAF cannot find the integrity to take care of this man, then the rest of football needs to step up.

  • Comment number 19.

    A genuinley shocking and sad story from the gun attack through to the shameful lack of assistance and aftercare for Mr Obilale from various football authorities.

    Surely our ridiculously overpaid Premiership players could organise some kind of benefit match to help out financially? And it would only need a small amount of donations per head from a high number of Premiership footballers to really make a positive difference to Mr Obilale's life. It's the very least the guy deserves.

    Credit to Adebayor too - he doesn't always help himself with his attitude on the pitch but massive respect to him for helping his teammate in his hour of need.

  • Comment number 20.

    CAF is at again only- bad news. I also noticed that CAF president has been in office more than Robert Mugabe. I wonder, still wonder if any thing good can ever come out of CAF or Africa as a whole.

  • Comment number 21.

    It's not a race issue as in colour but certainly if it was Ronaldo and the portugese bus, Or Beckham on an English bus, or lets say even Drogba, I am sure the outcry at the players treatment would be voicferous. I wonder if the football player federation wouldn't organise with Adebayor to insure that this man never has to be stressed out about how to pay his bills. The Man City squad alone could ensure he has a decent life if they all gave 10% of their monthly wage as a one off.

  • Comment number 22.

    Oh and to number 20, only when Europeans open up to their responsibilities and rolls in forming Africa as it is today, will progress be made...Many of the problems that exist are a direct result of European Colonialism

  • Comment number 23.

    i wish him all the best....

  • Comment number 24.

    collie21 - progress will never be made until people such as yourself stop trotting out this rubbish. Corruption in Africa has nothing to do with European colonialism. It's such a lazy argument.

    And Piers, can you not get someone to proof-read your writing? What does: "He may have only been playing for lowly Pontivy in the fourth tier of French football, but all who knew a man they repeatedly describe as a leader was destined for greater things." mean?? There are numerous examples of woeful writing throughout this piece.

  • Comment number 25.

    Very touching write up by Piers. Wishing Kodjovi Obilale a speedy recovery and a quick return to normal life.

    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

  • Comment number 26.

    @11. I don't see why Adebayor is expected to help out financially. You get paid (in some form or another), but I don't expect you to help every cause in your local area. It's brilliant that he has helped but we shouldn't expect or demand that someone helps out a friend or colleague.

    The idea from someone else suggests Man City should give 10% of their salary to help him is ridiculous. What about all the other players at various levels who have their career ended by injury (eg Wayne Harrison ex Liverpool and Oldham) or even die - Longhurst, Puerto (sp?) or Foe?

    CAF and, more importantly, FIFA should help him out but that won't happen until Blatter and his cronies go.

  • Comment number 27.

    And the president of CAF is....Issa Hayatou who, shall we say, has not done too badly out of football according to Panorama. Another example of football's governing bodies failing to act in the best interests of the game.

  • Comment number 28.

    I have a lot more respect for Emmanuel Adebayor now after reading this. Sure he earns a lot of money but the gesture towards a team-mate and fellow countryman is still sincere.

    I think it's disgusting however that FIFA and CAF haven't done more to help him. A one-off payment of £100,000 is hardly enough when players are now earning double that in a week, he should be paid annually, as for CAF their actions have been disgraceful. FIFA and Sepp Blatter should be getting their priorities right and condemning CAF rather than having a go at British newspapers and such.

    I applaud you Piers for bringing this story to light again. All the best to Kodjovi, he deserves much better treatment.

  • Comment number 29.

    "I think it's disgusting however that FIFA and CAF haven't done more to help him. A one-off payment of £100,000 is hardly enough when players are now earning double that in a week, he should be paid annually,"

    This was quite a moving article but comments like the one above sort of sum it up, but don't really make too much sense. Why is there this general feeling now that just because theres alot of money in parts of the football pyramid everyone who is or has been involved in the game should get preferential treatment in comparisson to anyone else. Ergo it's apparantly a tragedy when old footballers sell there trophys for money and what not and we here more talk of how players should be donating part of their sallaries to help them out. Well you often do see players at clubs like Arsenal donating days of salary however they give to sensible things like charities not just ex players. I feel sorry for Obilale but it seems that he's allready recieved considerably more than most people in that part of the world would recieve in a similar situation, why throw money just at him rather than distribute it to all the people in his position, oh thats right he should get more because he used to play football.

  • Comment number 30.

  • Comment number 31.

    As much as the next man I have sympathy for his situation, but as pointed out in a previous article by Richard Connelly,

    Go for a drive with Kodjovi Obilale and you could almost be riding with any professional footballer. Almost.

    First, see the smart car - a black BMW, in this case. Second, hear the music booming: it's R&B, of some description. Third, see the man, dressed fashionably in black - there are sparkly earrings, and what appears to be a fancy watch.

    Maybe he should be looking towards his future outside the game and budgeting his pay outs accordingly instead of spending it on flashy BMW's or his jewelry as you state,

    But with no house of his own, rent to pay and mouths to feed, a shortage of funds is likely to become a problem. The French federation have donated as has Fifa, who have given Obilale a one-off lump sum of $100,000.

    I would have though his accomodation situation would have been the first thing he would sort out, or is it just a case of him expecting to get hand outs for the footballing community to live the rest of his life in comfort ???

  • Comment number 32.

    Andrew (13) - for the first few months of his convalescence, Obilale was confined to his hospital bed but with time, he has recovered ever greater use of his body. A while back, he made it out of bed and into a wheelchair. Now, after a seventh operation, he can move everything save his right leg - meaning he can walk with crutches and even drive an automatic. His great goal in life, he says, is to now walk unaided.

  • Comment number 33.

    As for other points, TrueFansCo (6) - I'll try to get the address for you but please bear with me. As for a sentence not making sense, Sickntired (24) - I wholeheartedly agree (sadly). Let's just say time was short on Friday and the sentence should have ended ... 'all who knew a man they repeatedly describe as a leader SAY HE was destined for greater things'.

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 35.

    Hi TrueFansCo - slightly late but this apparently is going to be the best address, and the club will pass on.

    GSI Pontivy Football, 6 Quai du Plessis, 56300 Pontivy, FRANCE.

  • Comment number 36.

    Hi Piers,

    Didn't know the best place to ask this, so thought it would hopefully be seen on here.

    I'm currently looking for a blog article done by someone within BBC Sport (I'm guessing it was probably you as its on African football)about Eusebio in which he said how Portugal need African players.

    I've had a look around for it, but any help would be appreciated.



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