Irvin Khoza, chairman of the PSL. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SYDNEY SESHIBEDI
Irvin Khoza, chairman of the PSL. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SYDNEY SESHIBEDI

The SA Football Association (Safa) has taken the decision to suspend all football in the country in response to the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to spread in SA.

The suspension applies until April 4, Safa president Danny Jordaan said, making the announcement at Safa House in Nasrec, south of Johannesburg, on Wednesday. “We have a responsibility to govern football and therefore protect the players,” said Jordaan.

On Thursday the board of governors of the Premier Soccer League (PSL), who are effectively the 32 chairs of the top two division clubs, will meet in Johannesburg.

There are conflicting pressures on local soccer at a time of unprecedented crisis. As the coronavirus threat grows, there is a growing sentiment among club owners‚ many of whom have spoken to Business Day on condition of anonymity‚ that the league should be played behind closed doors‚ fuelled by a nod of approval on Tuesday from sports minister Nathi Mthethwa.

But that position runs the risk of a damaging public backlash and confrontations with Safa‚ which looks determined to claim the moral high ground and drive the immediate agenda.

There has been an age-old fight for ultimate authority of the game in SA. While the PSL is an affiliate of Safa‚ its financial muscle means it has been able to challenge the association continually over the years and often emerge on top.

The PSL governors will consider whether to resume behind closed doors — taking the example of Turkey‚ the only major league left where football continues‚ albeit without spectators.

The PSL executive committee on Monday suspended football until after this weekend in response to the declaration of a state of disaster by President Cyril Ramaphosa‚ including prohibiting gatherings of more than 100.

To play behind closed doors‚ the PSL would have to keep access down to below that number of people, which would be tough if the games are to be televised. Ordinarily there are at least 30 to 40 people per football team at the match venue and television brings at least another 50 staff‚ plus PSL officials and print and radio media‚ seemingly taking it above the 100-person limit.

A resumption would also mean clubs would need to travel, which would go against Ramaphosa’s directive against non-essential travel.

It could provoke a public relations catastrophe for the league and its clubs‚ who would be seen to be putting self-interest ahead of the greater public good at a time when containment and self-isolation are seen as the best weapons in the fight against the virus.

Another factor against a resumption behind closed doors is the growing number of players infected through contact on the field‚ notably from Spanish club Valencia after they travelled to Italy in the Champions League earlier in March.

Mthethwa gave a surprising go-ahead after meeting various sporting federations in Pretoria on Tuesday. “As we speak‚ they can have their match tomorrow with no spectators‚” the minister said. “But there is an obligation on them to follow to the letter the health and hygiene protocols as outlined by the department of health.”

Mthethwa’s comments were quickly slammed by Safa‚ which tweeted soon thereafter: “Safa’s position remains unchanged and that is all matches [from amateur level to PSL] must be postponed until further notice.”

Safa has previously shut down Mthethwa’s attempts to organise a soccer indaba‚ causing embarrassment to the minister‚ making him look powerless and highlighting his lack of understanding of the dynamics of the game.

The PSL board could also decide to postpone any drastic decisions and wait a little longer. There is no immediate pressure to make a finite call about the outcome of the season. They still have time because they can extend the league season from its mid-May conclusion right through until the end of June‚ as has now been done in Europe by postponing the 2020 European Championship to 2021.

They could reconvene in a few weeks and, if the situation has not changed, they would then have to decide on how to proceed.

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