Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola Outbreak: Sierra Leone’s Soccer Team Struggles With Stigma

Sierra Leone's national team at a training session in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The players continue to face reminders of the Ebola crisis. LUC GNAGO / REUTERS


Fans taunt them with chants of “Ebola.” Some opponents have hesitated to shake their hands or engage in the traditional swapping of jerseys. Humiliating medical screenings have become routine.

And in Cameroon, when the players on Sierra Leone’s exiled national soccer team checked into their hotel to prepare for an important match Saturday, some guests grew alarmed, and the police were called, a team spokesman said.

The Leone Stars (the team’s nickname) then moved to a newly built hotel where they remain the only occupants, on the advice of Cameroonian soccer and health officials.

“You feel humiliated, like garbage, and you want to punch someone,” John Trye, a reserve goalkeeper, said after hearing “Ebola” shouted at the players during a training session Thursday. “No one wants to have Ebola in their country. Sierra Leone is struggling. And they shove it in our face. That’s not fair.”

The Ebola crisis that has devastated parts of West Africa and spread fear across several continents is inflicting tangential damage to the Sierra Leone soccer team, which has endured a string of indignities since the disease broke out in May. In August it was barred “until further notice” by African soccer officials from playing in its own stricken country, turning it into an itinerant team that must play every match on the road as it struggles to qualify for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s biennial championship.

At each stop, the fear and stigma of Ebola leads to what players say is demeaning and discouraging treatment.

The Seychelles forfeited a match in July rather than host Sierra Leone, but did not notify the visiting team until it was set to board a connecting flight in Nairobi, Kenya. Last month, while playing a designated “home” game in the group stage in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone was mocked with chants of “Ebola, Ebola” from beginning to end in a 2-0 defeat.

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