- Associated Press - Thursday, September 23, 2010

LORIENT, FRANCE (AP) - Terrorist bullets shattered his spine. Football’s indifference shattered his faith.

“It’s a rotten world,” says Kodjovi Obilale, Togo’s once-strapping goalkeeper left in a wheelchair by the attack on his team’s bus at Africa’s showcase tournament, the Cup of Nations, in January.

After eight long and, for Obilale, dispiriting months, during which he went under the surgeon’s knife six times, world football’s governing body FIFA is now promising “concrete” help for the player who feels that he has been utterly forsaken by those who organized the Africa Cup in Angola.

“Excuse my language, but I think that is a bit disgusting. If I was a famous player like (Chelsea’s Didier) Drogba and the others, I don’t think things would have happened like this,” Obilale told The Associated Press in an interview this week at his hospital on western France’s Atlantic coast.

“I find it a bit abhorrent and sickening that they have abandoned me,” he says.

Two assault-rifle bullets “this big,” Obilale says, holding up a cigar-sized middle finger, hit his back, smashing two vertebrae and slicing through his intestines and bladder on their high-velocity path through his body. Surgeons repaired the stomach wounds, leaving on his smooth black skin a gnarly, raised scar two fingers thick from trouser-top to rib cage. But the crush-damage to his spinal cord is likely irreversible.

“I used to have enormous thighs,” he says. They’re spindly now.

He cannot move his right leg below the knee nor feel its foot and toes. With his plate-sized hands and muscular arms that once defended Togo’s goal, Obilale hoists the dead leg onto a bed where his cheerful physiotherapist, Marie Penven, sets about stretching, pulling and flexing his limbs and joints. The daily routine prevents Obilale’s withered muscles from seizing up completely from lack of use, she explains. Her vigor and soft bare feet are, inadvertently, an insolent reminder of the formidable physical abilities Obilale has lost.

“I used to wear XXL. Now it’s L. I’ve become a fashion model _ thin legs,” he jokes.

But his humor deserts him as he shifts gingerly and painfully from the bed to a nearby set of parallel bars where, gripping hard with both hands, he shuffles along upright in what cannot, and may never, be called a walk.

“Ouuuch!” he winces. “Oh, what a life. … My gosh.”

“The big concern is my right leg. That worries me. I don’t know what is going to happen with it. I pray for it to get better, so I can at least walk again. Even if I cannot play again, I want to walk. Even if I limp, that wouldn’t matter, because there is more to life than football. I can do other things. I’m only 25.”

Not once, Obilale says, has he been contacted by the Confederation of African Football, organizers of the biannual Africa Cup, or Angola, the southwest African nation picked as the 2010 host despite the rebellion by separatists in its oil-producing Cabinda region who claimed the machine-gun attack on Togo’s bus.

Because Togo pulled its shell-shocked team out of the Africa Cup, CAF banned the country from participating in the next two competitions. Only after FIFA boss Sepp Blatter intervened did CAF rescind its heartless punishment.

The AP contacted CAF communications head Souleymane Habuba on Monday for comment about Obilale and any compensation. Habuba asked for, but by Thursday had not responded to, an e-mailed list of questions. Nor did he answer his cell phone.

His own country, Obilale says, has been only marginally more responsive. He said he has had to harass officials in Togo by phone for help and embarrass them by speaking to reporters of his plight.

“When you are injured, everyone forgets about you,” Obilale says. “I call (and say), ‘What are you doing? I need you. Call me at least.’ I went there (to Angola) to defend our colors. … I spilled my blood for my flag. … But no one budges.”

In South Africa, where Obilale was medevaced for surgery after the attack, Togo’s sports minister Christophe Tchao gave the cash equivalent of $17,000 (euro13,000) to Obilale’s partner, both men say.

In a phone interview with The AP, the minister said Obilale also got roughly the same amount again sometime later. Obilale, however, insists that is untrue _ “Was he drunk or what? Each time, he lies to journalists,” he told The AP. He also says the money received in South Africa didn’t cover the entirety of his partner’s hotel and other expenses during the weeks she spent there. Obilale says he and Emmanuel Adebayor, his wealthy friend who plays for English Premier League side Manchester City, made up the shortfall.

Either way, signs started to emerge this week that help, at last, is on its way from FIFA, the only body that Obilale feels really has the power to force CAF, Angola and Togo to come up with a decent compensation package.

“The only person who can shift all this is Mr. Blatter,” he says, referring to the FIFA president.

In response to an e-mailed list of questions, FIFA spokesman Pekka Odriozola called The AP on Wednesday, the day after the news agency’s interview with Obilale, to say that it received a letter from him. Odriozola said FIFA will write back to Obilale by urgent mail or courier this week with details of “concrete things” that will be done. Odriozola wouldn’t comment on what the things were, saying Obilale should learn of them from FIFA first, not via the media. Odriozola suggested the AP not publish its interview with Obilale until after FIFA goes public with the contents of its letter. Doing otherwise, he argued, “would be unfair.”

“It’s not just a letter saying, ‘We hope you recover,’” Odriozola said. “We have done the things that we needed to do.”

“We were not aware, until very recently, what the exact situation was,” he added.

Told by the AP on Wednesday evening of FIFA’s planned response, Obilale said: “That is good news.”

Obilale also said that a payment of $70,000 (euro53,000) promised by Togo’s sports minister when he visited him in France a month ago has finally landed in his bank account. Asked earlier in the day why the money was taking so long to arrive, the minister had said it was “in the pipeline” and that when he used to live in Paris, “Togo sometimes used to send money and I’d get it one and a half months, two months later.”

Obilale says the money will cover his hospital bill and the rent on his apartment in Lorient where his partner and two children, Mandy, 8, and Hauvik, 2, live. He has the kids’ names tattooed on his forearm and leaves the hospital to visit them on weekends, hauling himself up the eight stairs to his home, sometimes sitting down if he is too exhausted to climb them upright. He sometimes suffers spasms like electrical discharges in his right leg that keep him awake at night. He tries not to take too many painkillers; he doesn’t drink alcohol but smokes a little. With the newly arrived funds, he hopes to move into a house with wheelchair access.

“That way, I won’t struggle anymore,” he says.

But even if only short-term, things seem this week to be looking up, Obilale’s battle for a full life after football is still to come. The Togolese minister told the AP that Angola was insured and that his government is in contact with its counterpart there about compensation for the injured. But since the process is in lawyers’ hands, no one knows how long that could take _ unless, of course, FIFA’s letter also includes a promise to slice through the bureaucracy.

There’s also the mental trauma and unanswered questions Obilale lives with about why separatists targeted them and why Angola and Togo made the team take a bus when, he says, “they knew that the zone wasn’t safe.” The team’s assistant coach, Abalo Amelete, and its press official, Stanislas Ocloo, as well as their Angolan bus driver, were killed.

“If we hadn’t had an escort, we all would have croaked. Because the guys were shooting the windows, the bus, and the (Angolan) soldiers were firing back,” he said, adding that the troops’ armed response saved lives.

“I can’t understand it. I’m still trying to understand it, and I won’t give up the search for the truth. They took a part of my life away. I want to play football. That has been my dream since I was a kid. And now that dream has brutally been cut short. That hurts me a lot. I think about it every day.”

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org

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