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‘Kick’starting the Season – Considerations for the Safe Resumption of Football

31 May 2020
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On 16 March 2020 the Premier Soccer League (PSL) suspended all matches due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The PSL and the South African Football Association (SAFA) have indicated their commitment to completing the 2019/20 season. In this regard, the PSL and SAFA have jointly formed a Football Task Team mandated to provide solutions on the manner professional football may be resumed in South Africa (Task Team).

After considering the legal framework and the safety concerns, the Task Team will prepare a submission for the resumption of football to the PSL/SAFA Joint Liaison Committee (JLC). After considering the submission, the JLC will provide the proposal to the Government for consideration and approval.  It has been reported that the international football governing body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has imposed a deadline on the conclusion of all domestic leagues, which is 31 July 2020. This means that the PSL has just a few weeks to complete the season. At present, it is unclear whether the PSL will finalize the current season before the deadline date.

As things stand in South Africa, certain parts of the country will move to Alert Level 3 of national lockdown from 1 June 2020. The Draft Framework for Consultation on COVID-19 Risk Adjusted Strategy 25 April 2020 (COVID-19 Framework) provides that ‘other recreational, cultural and sporting activities and facilities’ will only re-open under lockdown Alert Level 1, subject to directions.

This means that without Government approval, it is unlikely that football will resume anytime soon. Accordingly, the Task Team is required to prepare a framework, which is line with the objects of the COVID-19 Framework and the other COVID-19 associated regulations, that details the manner in which professional football may safely resume, with the view of finalization before the deadline imposed by FIFA.

At the present moment, the Task Team is working on a proposal with the view of persuading the Government to permit the resumption of football under Alert Level 3. Safety concerns are at the top of the priority list; with the JLC intending to adopt a series of measures to mitigate the spreading of COVID-19. As the clock ticks and the pressure intensifies to meet FIFA’s deadline, below are considerations, which will assist in ensuring the resumption of football.

The German Bundesliga is an interesting case study to consider in the attempt to develop health and safety guidelines for the resumption of football in South Africa amidst the lockdown.

The German Bundesliga made its return to action on 16 May 2020 – becoming the first major league in Europe to do so since the COVID-19 outbreak. The German Government permitted the return of domestic football after monitoring all the risks involved and having been satisfied of the safety of players and staff associated with the clubs. The Bundesliga published guidelines, which cover a range of areas that ensure the safe resumption of not only the Bundesliga but also other domestic leagues, which include the FLYERALARM Women’s Bundesliga (German Guidelines).

Among other things, the German Guidelines  provide that: (i) players and staff must be quarantined and must be tested prior to training; (ii) on match days, players and staff must travel in separate transportation to ensure adherence of social distancing; (iii)  match day and training equipment must be disinfected; (iv) spectators are prohibited at stadiums and only essential personnel are permitted; (v) all personnel accessing the stadium must wear protective clothing; (vi) substitutes must observe strict social distancing protocols, which include sitting on the grandstands and not the dugouts; (vii) organisational precautions must be observed in stadiums; (viii) safety measures concerning hotel accommodation must be observed; (ix) and strict protocols applicable to broadcasters must be observed. The guidelines also provide comprehensive steps and protocols that must be observed in the event that an individual tests positive for COVID-19.

In South Africa, it is reported that the PSL has earmarked Sun City Resort in the North West province as the designated place to host all the Absa Premiership and GladAfrica Championship clubs, with the view of creating one big camp where all the remaining matches in the respective leagues will be played.  The Sun City Resort is an attractive option as it is in close proximity to three stadiums, namely the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, the Moruleng Stadium, and the Olympia Park Stadium, which can host the matches during the camp. The secluded location is particularly advantageous as it will ensure that the respective leagues are finalized with minimal public exposure. On the other hand, if Sun City Resort is used by the PSL, strict measures may need to be followed to ensure that the location does not become a COVID-19 breeding ground.

Notwithstanding that certain aspects of South African football are unique to South Africa alone, the German Guidelines provide a useful framework, which the Task Team can consider in determining the measures for the safe resumption of football in South Africa. In this regard, we recommend the below measures to assist in the safe resumption of football: 

Guidelines for resuming team training and matches: 

  • Training and matches must take place without spectators and individuals must change at their residences;
  • Players must be prohibited from contacting one another, except for contact, which is inherently required by the nature of the game.
  • Players, coaches and all applicable personnel must wear face masks at all times;
  • Equipment must be regularly disinfected;
  • Strict social distancing protocols must be observed for activity occurring off the field (i.e. no team huddles, substitutes should sit at least two seats apart); and
  • Strict hygiene protocols must be observed. 

Guidelines for hotel accommodations 

  • Hotels must be booked exclusively for the team or exclusive floor/areas to prevent contact with other hotel guests;
  • One player/ staff member per room;
  • Spa areas, fitness rooms and other facilities in the hotel must be closed off for the players and club staff;
  • Strict protocols relating to the consumption of food.

Guidelines for organisational precautions in stadium 

  • The stadium premises must be divided into three zones: the interior, the stands and the stadium exterior; individuals will only be allowed access to certain zones;
  • A maximum of 300 people is permitted entry in the stadium and each zone must not exceed 100 individuals;
  • No mascots or child escorts; and
  • Handshakes and group photos must be prohibited.

Our view is that the safe resumption of football is contingent on the Task Team’s ability to provide creative measures that ensure football’s safe resumption. It must be noted that a significant impediment in the Task Team’s way is the players’ willingness to resume the season – considering that they are the ones who are at risk of being exposed to COVID-19.

Simply put, can a player who expresses his or her unwillingness to play be forced to play in the light of COVID-19? This is a legal question, which the Task Team, the PSL and the applicable clubs may need expert legal advice in considering.