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Is football safe to return in Nigeria?


Jun. 23, 2020

European football has gradually returned after the COVID-19 lull, but a presidential clampdown on sporting activities in Nigeria has hindered the NPFL restart, with the football-crazy populace divided on whether it is safe for the local league to resume or not, reports KELVIN EKERETE
Sporting activities in Nigeria were halted in mid-March due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic with the Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control announcing that it was unsafe for football to continue due to the virus.
But with the gradual easing of lockdown rules around the country and the resumption of sporting events in Europe, including football leagues in Germany, Italy, Spain, England and others, a section of the football family believes football can resume soon.
The League Management Company tried to figure out how the Nigeria Professional Football League would resume, with  its chairman Shehu Dikko giving four options for a possible restart. But a non-implementation of the options fueled speculations that the league might be cancelled after 25 games, just like it happened in 2018, when the league was suspended after 24 games and Lobi Stars declared champions.
Shehu said, “Four options were available to be considered towards conclusion of the NPFL, subject to Government approval and time permitting which are Option A: end the league as it is, adjust the table based on Points Per Game system so as to bring all the teams at par to guarantee sporting merits & sporting fairness.
“Then LMC organise a playoff to determine the Winner & CAF slots.
“Option B: end the league as it is, adjust the table based on PPG system so as to bring all the teams at par to guarantee sporting merits and fairness. Then submit the top ranked teams for CAF competitions. This option is only considered if there is no time for the playoffs.
“Option C: converge the clubs on a one-state venue and play the remaining matches within three stadiums that are normally not more than two-three hours apart and conclude the remaining matches within five-six weeks playing tehr games a week and with all the quarantine and testing requirements.
“Option D: to conclude the league as normal on basis of home and away provided time permits, the country reopens completely, the health issue completely under control and with huge support and approval from government.”
But any hope of the NPFL resuming was put to rest two weeks ago, when Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, stated emphatically that the Federal Government would not allow sporting activities, using football as an example, to resume, adding that it wasn’t safe to do so yet.
“I’m not sure we are excited about opening sporting activities in our country, particularly soccer (football), which attracts large crowds,” Mustapha said.
“If our guidelines say large gatherings are banned and not to exceed 20 persons except places of work, I don’t see the excitement if we allow soccer to return to an empty stadium.
“We are not excited about allowing sports to return, we will get there, but for now, we are concerned with the few activities allowed to reopen,” Mustapha said.
The resumption of the league was further thrown into uncertainty on Sunday when 17 of the 20 NPFL club chairmen voted against the restart, over safety concerns.
Kwara United, Kano Pillars, Katsina United, Jigawa Golden Stars, Adamawa United, Wikki Tourists, MFM, Sunshine Stars, Enyimba, Warri Wolves, Abia Warriors, Nasarawa United, IfeanyiUbah, Dakkada, Heartland, Plateau United and Rivers United voted for the cancellation of the league, while former champions Enugu Rangers voted for a return, but with a Super Six competition, while Lobi Stars and Akwa United declined voting.
Chairman of NPFL new boys Dakkada, Aniedi Dickson, says it is only proper to wait for government’s directive before taking a decision on the resumption, citing safety concerns.
“I think we should allow the government and the LMC more time to watch what is going on.
Enugu Rangers Team Manager, Amobi Ezeaku, is also of the view that it’s not safe for football to return at the moment.
“Yes, because from what we read in the media and from reports of the NCDC, people are still dying and more are getting infected, and the idea of playing in an empty stadium might not be feasible. I suggest we don’t risk returning to football at this moment.
“If the Federal Government gives the go-ahead for sporting activities to resume, then we can go ahead and finish the league, but if there is pressure from CAF to submit teams from Nigeria to compete on the continent, then the league should be cancelled and those that represented Nigeria last year be given the go-ahead to do so this year.”
A few of the coaches also kicked against the resumption of the league.
“I won’t support the resumption of the league  without medical facilities because it makes it unsafe for people,” Sunshine Stars coach, Kabiru Dogo, said.
“I cannot tell you that it is convenient for us to resume  when the Federal Government is battling with the pandemic, and the numbers keep increasing on a daily basis. We have to wait for government to give the directive (for a restart), but for now, it is unsafe,” Dakkada coach, Caleb Esu, added.
Dr. Bukola Bojuwoye, a specialist in Sports Medicine, described the return of sporting activities in the country as “dicey.”
He said the availability of COVID-19 testing kits and facilities, which government had admitted weren’t enough, as well as regular tests conducted on playing and coaching staff of clubs were essential for the safe return of club football in the country.
“If football, especially the NPFL, is thinking of resuming, then the clubs must test their players and officials, at least once a week. The players and officials have to be isolated in a camp and not have any contact with the outside world. But the question is, can the clubs afford this equipment?
“There must also be a verifiably accredited testing facility in all the match venues. The situation is very dicey.”
But Warri Wolves chairman, Moses Etu, is strongly against the NPFL resuming now, saying it will be very difficult for the clubs to meet the requirements outlined by Dr Bojuwoye.
“If we are to restart the league, we will keep the players for 14 days for COVID-19 testing. Which hotel will allow their facility for an isolation centre? Who is going to pay the fees for the testing of the players, because there’s no money for that?
“And if you send these players to the regular isolation centre, will they be psychologically prepared for the restart?”
As at Tuesday, there were 675 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, with the overall number rising to 20,919 and 525 deaths recorded since the pandemic’s outbreak in Nigeria.
But some NPFL stars are eager to return to action despite the increasing cases in the country.
“The league organisers should strictly adhere to WHO’s guidelines and stadiums should be decontaminated.
“All players, coaching and management teams should first be tested for COVID-19, while matches should be played behind closed doors, like it’s done in Europe.”
Sunshine Stars duo, Jamiu Alimi and Ikenna Hilary, are also prepared to return to action as long as players safety is given priority.
Hilary, who was seen training at FESTAC Town, Lagos on Friday, said,” I’m in support of the league restart. We have been training privately at home and I’m looking forward to playing again as soon as possible but we know we want it to be as safe as possible too.”
But Lobi Stars defender, Reuben Ogbonnaya, insists it’s not safe for football to return yet.
“I don’t want football to return for now because our nation is not safe from the coronavirus yet,” he said.
“If schools are not allowed to operate and there are restrictions in places of worship, then I don’t think it’s wise for football to return. I miss football but it’s the living who can play football. He who is not sick cannot play, for me, its health first.”
Kwara United defender, Akeem Onigbari, also raised concerns about restarting the league, stating that people’s life may be at risk.
“I don’t think restarting the league will be a wise move,” he said.
“People’s lives are at risk already. The numbers keep rising daily and it’s scary. Football shouldn’t even be discussed until the numbers have dropped massively.”
“Players have been at home for over three months and they lack adequate training and good fitness. It will take a lot of things to make the restart a reality so I don’t support that.”
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