By Duro Ikhazuagbe
Nobody could have ever imagine March without football matches: whether domestic or European. But that is the reality we now find ourselves with this coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic ravaging the entire world at the moment. It is not just football that has been suspended but all sporting activities globally!
Since its outbreak in Wuhan, China in late November, the world has never been the same again.
First, teams in the Italian Serie A started playing games behind closed doors. But what is football without fans? Fans create the vibes that make players create something out of nothing. Of course, it was just a matter of time for football authorities to realize that playing before empty stadiums is like eating Amala, a Yoruba delicacy, with fork and knife. The real fun is the licking of the soup-stained fingers! Almost at the same time, the Spanish top flight — LaLiga — also tried a couple of games without fans but it was obvious that these leagues cannot continue with the manner the Covid-19 was spreading like wild fire in harmattan period of the year. The season in England, Germany and other top leagues in Europe all had to be put on hold same way both the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League were stopped. For Nigerian-born Odion Ighalo, who had become the head cornerstone of Manchester United both in the Premier League and the Europa, scoring his fourth goal in four starts in United colours at Austrian club LASK Linz, was icing on his career many had written off playing in the Chinese League. Several pundits thought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had gone mad signing Ighalo on loan for six month from Shanghai Shehua on the winter transfer deadline day in January.
The match was the last played in the 2019/20 Europa League Round of 16 before it was put on hold. And this is the same Ighalo who was quarantined when he arrived England from China. He had to train alone for two weeks before he was integrated into the squad at Old Trafford.
Our own John Mikel Obi certainly knows real and present danger when he sees one. His warning to Turkish Lig authorities to suspend the season, which put him into trouble with his Trabzonspor club president, turned out prophetic! In Mikel’s words: “I do not feel comfortable and don’t want to play football in this (Covid-19 pandemic) situation. Everyone should be with their families and loved ones in this critical time. Season should be cancelled as the world is facing such turbulent times.”
Barely days after Mikel walked away from the club, Turkey suspended play just as other top leagues in Europe have done due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As football was been shut down everywhere, Nigeria could not be the exception to continue to play. The country’s topflight, the NPFL, was halted. The second tier Bet9ja league that has been on hold since December due to several factors also failed to take off as planned. The women’s league has also been put on hold.
If there is any state hardest hit by the pandemic, that state is Edo. Governor Godwin Obaseki and his Deputy, Phillip Shaibu, had gone the extra mile to ensure that hosting the 20th National Sports Festival in Benin City was going to set a new benchmark for the Nigerian ‘Olympics’. Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium is not only wearing a new look, it has been transformed into perhaps, the best sports complex in Nigeria today. Apart from the ‘mint’ main-bowl with lush green turf and eight-lane track, the complex now has two Olympic-sized swimming pools, four tennis courts, four squash courts and a suspended gymnasium equipped with the latest technology. It is the third of such in Africa. To ensure safety of athletes, fans and officials, the stadium has a CCTV with the capacity to view five kilometres radius of the complex. And it is the only stadium in the country, as at today, with Video Assistant Referee (VAR) equipment to review any infringement. There are other 16 centres with modern facilities to host the festival in the Edo State capital. In the words of Shaibu: “What we have done with our sports facilities in Edo is to make the sports sector capable of helping the careers of our youths in the state because we know talents abound here.” Edo was indeed ready to set a new benchmark in the hosting of the National Sports Festival before the pandemic led to its postponement.
Just like others around the world, Team Nigeria’s athletes have also slowed down on preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Despite the push by the Japanese Local Organising Committee to ensure that Tokyo 2020 was not postponed, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had no choice but accept popular opinions to shift the Games till next year summer.
IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived at the historic decision to delay the Olympics — the first time that has been done in peacetime — last Tuesday. Before that decision, Canada and Australia had withdrawn their participation if Japan stubbornly decided to go ahead despite the continued spread of the virus around the world.
All other federations have either cancelled their season or suspended their programmes till later in the year. No one is sure when the pandemic will abate to allow life return to normal in sporting arena.
For most operators of football viewing centres, these are indeed trying times. They have all closed shops as there are no games to screen to fans. One of the popular operators in Akowonjo, Tunde Taiwo said the pandemic has ruined his business. “I don’t know what to do now. This coronavirus has spoilt everything for those of us earning our living from this viewing centre business. There are no matches in English Premier League or LaLiga. I am just confused now because I have spent so much money to renovate my viewing centre. I even had to take loan from my friend to buy a new deep freezer as the old one I was using developed a fault. I sell drinks and pepper soup during matches. Now, nobody comes here anymore as there are no matches,” moaned the view centre operator.
It is not only the view centre operators that are counting their loses. A tricycle rider, who is an ardent patron of sports betting (Johnson), told THISDAY that he is missing the suspension of major football leagues around the world. “I play sports betting on Bet9ja almost every time there were matches and I always win. I bought this my Keke (tricycle) with one of my winnings in sport betting. With no passengers due to restrictions on movement and no sports betting because there are no matches, I am just wondering how people like me are going to survive this stay at home directive from government.”
Before the postponement of Tokyo 2020, Nigeria’s male and female basketball teams had qualified for the Games. Odunayo Adekuoroye and two other wrestlers had also booked their tickets. Some of the country’s top athletes have also met the standard for their various events.
With the summer games moved to next year and no certainty on when the pandemic will come to an end, tough time awaits sports men and women and their administrators.