South African football will return. As these words are hammered onto the keyboard, the PSL board of governors is deliberating the finer points of its resumption.
The return of the league is likely to coincide with a spike in the Covid-19 infection rate. It would seem league administrators have little choice but to resume play lest they renege on corporate and broadcast deals. The European leagues that have restarted did so to appease their television overlords.
Football was harder hit by the pandemic than any other sport in the country. With its huge following and associated sponsorship deals, that was always going to be the case when President Cyril Ramaphosa locked the country down in March.
As far as the PSL goes, a live gate has never been a huge factor. In a submission to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa in 2017, the league said that 59% of its revenue was from broadcasting and only 6% was from ticket sales and suppliers.
The PSL has yet to announce when and where it will resume. What we do know is that the schedule will be tight, it will take place in a biologically safe area to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and officials target October as the starting date of the new season.
Clubs will now turn their attention to getting their squad fit for a match. Not an easy task when players have been stuck in their homes for three and a bit months.
“Communication has been very key. The first two weeks we were locked down in level 5 were tough,” SuperSport United coach Kaitano Tembo told a SA Football Journalists Association online media briefing on Wednesday afternoon.
“We started with a little bit of Zoom [online training] but it wasn’t enough in terms of what we wanted to do. We had to come up with a different strategy in which we had to ask a lot of the players [to record] all their training sessions on a daily basis based on the training programmes we have given them. That means it was more of an administration on our side.”
Tembo said the players have started to adjust, “but when they come back they come back in very bad shape. Doing it on your own is not easy.”
Supersport United, like the other 15 PSL clubs, face the possibility of beginning competitive football with no more than two weeks of full team training notched up. Although the overall quality of play will be rusty, the greater concern is players may be more susceptible to injury.
Tembo’s outfit has the luxury of not having much to play for, aside from continental football. With a top-half finish all but secured, they can ease into the game and even use the last two as preparation for the following season.
“I think it’s very important for us to realise that we have to look after the players in terms of injuries,” he said. “If you look at what’s happening in Europe, the first two, three games were tough and they had to take them as preseason games.
“I’ve heard that they may allow us to use five players which may come in handy in terms of safeguarding players from injury,” he added.
South African Football Association chief medical officer Dr Thulani Ngwenya said that if all Covid-19 protocols are followed, there is only a “one percent chance” that a player will get the disease.
“The plan says that 48 hours before the teams go to that biologically safe environment they are going to be tested again‚“ he said.
“The second testing will try to eliminate the possibility of having a false negative test from the first test. And now that you are 48 hours away from the BSE [biologically safe environment]‚ those who are cleared will go to a mini-camp wherever they are. Because we don’t want them — after a second test — going home and being contaminated.
“They go from this 48-hour mini-camp to the BSE. In that BSE‚ everyone who goes in will not be allowed out until the games are completed. In there‚ they will be screened on a daily basis. Anyone with symptoms will be further evaluated by the team doctor‚ who will report back to the person overseeing the BSE‚ and we will decide whether to test or isolate the individual. If someone tests positive‚ there is an isolation area outside but close to the BSE. That whole team and technical staff are then tested again too.”
Given the extended time away from their families, these protocols are unlikely to bring players much joy but, with the league destined to return, safety takes priority. It’s not going to be easy, but football was never going to stay away too long.