Return to play
Following the statement by Premier Soccer League (PSL) chairman Irvin Khoza on Monday, where he confirmed Gauteng as the venue that would host the “bio-bubble” controlled environment for the completion of the season, the South African Football Association (Safa) confirmed that football action will resume in the first week of August.
Safa, which supplies the PSL with referees, met their Joint Liaison Committee (JLC) counterparts on Monday 13 July to iron out outstanding issues in relation to a safe return to play for football in the country.
“The 110 match officials will be subjected to medical and mandatory fitness tests. The medical examination specifically entails testing for Covid-19, and those who test negative would be required to undergo a mandatory 14-day fitness test under the guidance of the Fifa approved fitness trainer,” said Safa in the post-meeting statement.
“We’re balancing so many sensitive areas of lives and livelihoods.”
These were the words of Khoza when he spoke for the first time since announcing that all football activity in SA was coming to a halt on 16 March. The suspension of both Absa Premiership and GladAfrica Championship action was enforced by the arrival of Covid-19, and the subsequent national lockdown.
As he spoke on Monday, Khoza was at pains to highlight how vital a swift completion of the season is for the well-being of football in the country, which he stressed is a business that contributes to the economy of the country and not merely a game.
The chairman added that a hasty conclusion was important for the survival of the various teams. If football returned in September for example, it would leave the coffers of clubs dry. As of 30 June, the monthly sponsorship grants to teams ceased, meaning they would not have enough in their cash reserves for a lengthy delay in completing the season.
Khoza added that some teams had decried the hastened timeline – initially set at 18 July for return-to-play – fearful of their players suffering serious injury after being relatively inactive for three months. But he stated that there were provisions in place to minimise such a risk. He pointed out that Fifa has increased the number of substitutions permitted in a game from three to five.
The PSL has also told teams they will be allowed to use players from the Multichoice Diski Challenge (MDC) – which is the reserve league – in case of injury or if a large number of players from a single team contract the virus or test positive prior to entering the bio-bubble.
That decision might cast doubt on the integrity of football in the country. The ethics of teams could also be put to the test. The temptation to field key players who test positive within the controlled environment, but are asymptomatic, might arise.
These are of course hypothetical scenarios and the hope is that everything will run smoothly once the horses are out of the gates again.
It takes two to tango
Since March, the PSL in conjunction with Safa, who share an uneasy relationship at the best of times, have worked together in an attempt to ensure the safe return of football action. At the encouragement of the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, they formed the JLC.
As the JLC they appointed a task team which was mandated to draft protocols on a safe return to play, for government approval. The task team delivered.
So impressed was Mthethwa and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) that they said the protocols presented went above and beyond expectation for a safe to play environment.
At times there were disagreements between Safa and PSL. However, whenever that was the case, Mthethwa stepped in to remind them of the importance of working together for the greater good of football.
Mthethwa wrote to Safa reminding them that as the mother body of football in the country, the onus was on them to ensure that everything ran smoothly.
However, in another apparent display of the tensions that exist with the PSL, a Safa statement on Monday noted: “The choice of Gauteng as the host of training and match venues, as well as hotels, was agreed to by the government and NSL (National Soccer League) and Safa had no input to this process.”
Gauteng is of course the new epicentre of the virus in the country, after overtaking the Western Cape as Covid-19 gained momentum in recent weeks.
As such, the decision to use it as the host for the bio-bubble camp has raised some eyebrows. But Khoza said that out of the three provinces (including North West and KwaZulu-Natal) that were in contention to host, Gauteng made more sense, adding that the protocols in place were created to be highly effective in any environment.
As it stands, teams have two weeks to gear up for the conclusion of the league, and all eyes will be on the PSL, Safa and Mthethwa’s ministry to see whether the decisions they have taken up to this point have been wise. DM