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Sunday, 29 September, 2002, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
Wafu Cup: after Bouake
The Sierra Leone team
Sierra Leone were rescued on Friday

Fifa boss Sepp Blatter thanked French premier Jacques Chirac for his "act of humanity" after he sent in troops to rescue three national team squads trapped in a hotel during a mutiny in the Ivory Coast city of Bouake.

The words were not an overstatement of Chirac's actions.

The players, from Senegal, Sierra Leone and Gambia, had been stuck in the hotel for a total of nine days while soldiers patrolled the rooms.

They had been in the country for the Wafu Cup, West Africa's regional football tournament, but now found themselves in the middle of a much more dangerous game.

They knew little of the situation in the city, although they heard shots from inside the hotel.

Gambia prepare to leave
Gambia have asked for their next match to be delayed
By the time they were released, they were down to a few grains of rice a day to eat and bathing in water from the hotel's swimming pool.

Issues

But after the initial wave of relief that the players are now safely home passes, in its wake will be a number of serious issues African football, and particularly West African football, will need to address.

Most immediately are the practical problems regarding the effect of the ordeal on the players, both mentally and physically.

Already, Gambia have asked Caf to postpone their Nations Cup qualifier with Lesotho.

Meanwhile Sierra Leone coach Sam Obi Metzger has expressed his frustration that for nine days, his players were both unable to train and undernourished.

But even once the players are back to full fitness - and there is no knowing how long that may take - the crisis raises the seriously worrying precedent of players being taken hostage in political situations.

That possibility is likely to make teams wary of travelling to places their security cannot be secured.

Club v country

This already caused chaos in the Caf Cup Winner's Cup earlier this year, as holders Kaizer Chiefs were kicked out for refusing to travel to Madagascar to play US Transfoot.

French soldier
French soldiers rescued the teams
But the Wafu crisis is also certainly not likely to make European clubs any more likely to release their players to return home, something they are already reluctant to do.

If the coup had been just five days earlier, the players involved would not have been the local-based sides in the Wafu Cup but the first-team squads of Ivory Coast and South Africa, kicking off Group 11 in the African Nations Cup qualifiers.

Had the likes of Manchester United's Quinton Fortune, Arsenal's Kolo Toure, or Marseille's Ibrahim Bakayoko been caught up in the violence, the consequences for the club-country relationships would have been disastrous.

Fortunately, the history of football is one of the game acting as a unifying force in deeply divided areas.

More than ever, Caf must ensure that players can play on in safety, so that this always remains the case.

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