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Picture: 123RF/SOMKKU9KANOKWAN
Picture: 123RF/SOMKKU9KANOKWAN

The continued enforced absence of fans — and even journalists — from SA’s football defies belief.

While most other leagues in the world have resumed playing in full stadiums since last August, Premier Soccer League (PSL) fixtures are still being staged in empty venues with canned crowd noise meant to provide some “atmosphere”.

The idea of fans having to watch on television their favourite teams and players trying to deliver their best in the soulless and empty stadiums is like having to grin and bear the prospect of a top artist miming their way through a show. It’s just not the real deal.

It was even hard to take seriously games that were played in empty stadiums in Europe’s leading leagues last season. Watching those encounters where the shouts and instructions of players and coaches could be clearly heard above the tones of the television commentators, not to mention the foul language that abounded on the pitch, was akin to observing a preseason friendly.

Friday, March 11, will mark the second anniversary of the last time a PSL fixture was played in front of a crowd. Mamelodi Sundowns were then made to battle for their 1-0 win over Stellenbosch FC at the Athlone Stadium, Cape Town.

A glimmer of hope was offered in October and November 2021 when 2,000 vaccinated fans were allowed into the FNB Stadium to watch Bafana’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

When the PSL ran what seemed to be a successful pilot project at end-October during the MTN8 final between Mamelodi Sundowns and Cape Town City when 2,000 vaccinated spectators (mainly sponsors, those with links to the two finalists and a small media contingent) were allowed into Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium, the logical assumption was that the return of a larger and more economically viable number of fans wasn’t too far off.

Eager shoppers

As it turned out, that ray of hope was akin to having to endure a match-winning injury-time goal being chalked off by VAR. Since then the PSL has ploughed on with staging fixtures in big stadiums that are degraded to concrete monstrosities in the absence of the vibrancy, noise and colour normally provided by fans. The teams may as well have been playing in smaller, more compact venues to at least make the occasion more palatable.

As many PSL teams use venues, training or otherwise, bequeathed by the 2010 World Cup that have a seating capacity of more than 20,000, limiting numbers to even just 30% poses a much smaller risk than allowing thousands of eager shoppers to crowd malls at month’s end as is the case now.

Even Shabir Madhi, Wits University’s internationally respected professor of vaccinology, has urged the government to allow fans access to sporting events countrywide. He has gone as far as labelling the restrictions on crowds attending open-air events as being “unfit for purpose”.

Using the UK as an example, Madhi believes there is no reason crowds shouldn’t be allowed back since there has been no increase in the number of Covid-19-related hospitalisations or infections.

As it is, most PSL games, besides the Soweto derby and when Mamelodi Sundowns, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs play each other, hardly attract more than 5,000 fans.

Closed doors

As much as the Soweto derby has become a national sporting institution, the absence of hype around last weekend’s encounter between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs at the Orlando Stadium illustrates how far interest in the league has plummeted since the enforced absence of fans who are the heart and soul of all sport. Without fans professional sport won’t survive.

The FNB Stadium’s 94,000 seats would normally have been sold out weeks in advance and the banter between rival fans would have commenced well ahead of the encounter. Not so this time, neither for the previous six occasions, in league and cup competitions, when the world-famous derby had to be played behind closed doors.

While acknowledging that the reopening of stadiums is crucial for the economic recovery of all sport, Nathi Mthethwa, the minister in charge of the portfolio, has shown little urgency to expedite the process. To be fair, neither is the PSL making enough noise for him and the government to do so.

The absence of fans has also had another serious unintended consequence — it has resulted in an alarming drop in television viewership. The PSL should be concerned that November’s Soweto derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs was watched by an audience of 4.2-million, down more than 50% from the figure of the last derby played in front of fans on February 29 2020.

The league says that the costs of instituting the necessary protocols would not be covered by admitting only 2,000 fans. Fair enough, so why not lobby and put pressure on government to allow more fans in?

The PSL should be doing a lot more to force the government to open the stadiums because the longer the situation persists the greater the chance the stadiums will still be relatively empty when increasingly disaffected fans are eventually allowed back.

With the state of National Disaster due to end on March 15 the government will hopefully see the light and flash a bright red card to all the restrictions on fans attending open-air sporting events countrywide.

• Mogamad Allie is a freelance journalist who has been covering SA and international football since 1983 as a commentator and reporter for radio, television and print.

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