Absa Premiership

OPINION | PSL should delay resumption plan as SA heads towards Covid-19 storm

Irvin Khoza and his executive committee address the media during the PSL EXCO and press conference at PSL Headquarters on March 16, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Irvin Khoza and his executive committee address the media during the PSL EXCO and press conference at PSL Headquarters on March 16, 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Sydney Seshibedi
  • Plans to resume the PSL season should be delayed as SA experiences an alarming spike in Covid-19 cases.
  • The English Premier League, similarly, were forced to delay its 'Project Restart' after early suggestions to resume its season the beginning of May.
  • After CAF's decision to postpone all continental competitions, the PSL should also now delay any resumption plans.

The resumption of the 2019/2020 Absa Premiership campaign shows no signs of letting up, with the league having now been suspended for over 100 days and counting since 15 March.

This comes despite the alarming upward curve in new Covid-19 cases as South Africa continues to post record numbers of daily infections, with the worst predicted as yet to come.

In the last 24 hours, dated 6 July, South Africa recorded 8 975 new Covid-19 cases, with 111 deaths and the total confirmed cases rising to 205 721.

The PSL, consisting of the 32 combined Absa Premiership and GladAfrica Championship teams, were given the go-ahead to resume training on 24 June.

After submitting a document to the government, titled NSL Directive on Return to Training, that outlined all safety protocols, the PSL was praised by the national Department of Sport for going beyond the minimum safety requirements.

Since then, though, there have been a number of reported concerns regarding both the willingness and capability of the PSL to adhere to the safety protocols they had committed to.

There's a saying: "Money doesn't change people. It reveals them."

Perhaps this can be used to describe how the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the PSL, and the dysfunctional manner in which football in South Africa, in general, is run.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the ugly and often public battle simmering between SAFA and the PSL, as to who actually runs football, has been brought to light.

SAFA, on the one hand, has been insistently calling for a delay to the resumption of all football-related activities to prioritise player safety. The PSL, though, is seemingly committed in its attempts to resume the league as soon as possible, to minimise the financial impact.

It needed Minister of Arts, Culture and Sports Nathi Mthethwa to encourage the two parties to speak "with one voice", resulting in a Joint Liaison Committee being set up consisting of members from both organisations.

Mthethwa's department on 6 July then released a pointed statement, instructing SAFA to play its "overarching" role in ensuring the compliance of PSL teams.

In doing this, the government put an end to any confusion as to who was in charge, especially after SAFA raised concerns with the PSL's plan to stage competitive matches without complying fully to protocols.

PSL return to action

The PSL has followed the example set by European nations, who successfully resumed their domestic leagues in a safe manner by following strict safety measures.

There are a number of key differences, though, in the circumstances that led to leagues, such as the Bundesliga, Serie A and Premier League, being given the go-ahead.

All of the top five leagues in Europe - except France's Ligue 1, which was called off - resumed well after a peak in infections in their particular countries as Covid-19 numbers were dropping considerably.

South Africa currently is on a steep upward curve, with a peak in infections predicted for September.

Europe is also experiencing their summer season, which is understood to mitigate Covid-19 infection rates.

South Africa is in its winter and flu season, which is understood to accelerate coronavirus infection.

There's also a dramatic difference in the socio-economic standing of Europe compared to South Africa, which has a less effective ability to fight the pandemic.

Add to this the high HIV and TB rates in South Africa and it becomes a perfect storm for how the Covid-19 pandemic could devastate our country.

The PSL, then, seems to be a tiny sailboat in a massive ocean, trying to navigate its way through the storm.

There have been a number of red flags raised since teams resumed training ahead of a return to competitive matches.

So far, Kaizer ChiefsBloemfontein CelticOrlando Pirates and Stellenbosch FC have all confirmed positive Covid-19 results - with seven cases in total from players and staff.

Many teams, who have undergone Covid-19 testing, have all resumed training, and have chosen not to announce the results of those tests.

Smaller clubs have also revealed that adhering to protocols may prove difficult financially, raising serious doubts as to their ability to ensure the safety of their players by following protocols.

Chippa United are being investigated for breaking lockdown regulations for reportedly holding group training sessions, while a number of other teams are rumoured to have done the same.

There have also been an increasing number of calls for a return back to a harsher national lockdown with new infections spiking heavily in Gauteng.

Similarly, the Premier League was forced to backtrack - on 3 April, as the UK was heading into its peak - after receiving a backlash for its initial plan to resume at the beginning of May.

A Premier League statement at the time said: "First and foremost, it was reaffirmed that the overriding priority is to aid the health and well-being of the nation and our communities, including players, coaches, managers, club staff and supporters.

"The Premier League will not resume at the beginning of May - and that the 2019/20 season will only return when it is safe and appropriate to do so."

The Premier League did eventually resume - well after the UK's peak months of infection during April and May - on 17 June.

UK coronavirus daily infections

Worldometers graph displaying the Covid-19 peak in the months of March and April in the UK.

It would be a huge mistake for the PSL to blindingly follow the resumption schedule of European leagues as the risk of infection and weather conditions differ.

We can't simply point towards Europe and say, "they are back to playing, so that means we should be allowed too".

An example is China, where the Chinese Super League will begin on 25 July, five months later than scheduled. There is no time limit on how long a season should be delayed for.

Rugby in South Africa also faces an uncertain restart, with hopeful predictions for a return to live action at the end of August.

Emphasis on player safety

The Premier League received intense backlash in early April from the UK public for planning and even bringing up the topic of resuming football as infections spiked.

Why is there not a noticeably similar feeling from the South African public?

The overriding priority right now should be the health and well-being of players and staff, rather than any attempt to resume football.

All fans would like to be entertained by the successful return of football, but it has to be done by rigorously following protocols.

The PSL cannot copy certain aspects from the European leagues , but then not apply others in ensuring safety.

The safest and simplest thing to do would be to delay the return of the PSL until at least the end of August or until well after South Africa's peak.

The league should then apply and receive a stimulus from the government to ensure the financial sustainability of its member clubs, and that all players and staff are paid.

This would help clubs in their efforts to withstand the absence of TV money, as there is no live action taking place.

A date to resume training and then competitive matches could then be estimated by both SAFA and the PSL, according to the number of current cases and projected government Covid-19 models.

Also, CAF's decision to postpone its continental competitions, such as the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), scheduled for January, was made to allow domestic leagues on the continent to be completed.

This decision should be used as a guide for the PSL to aim to complete its season only when safe to do so.

In many cases, the simplest solution is the right solution.

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