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South Africa’s ambitious “bubble” plan prone to deflation

South Africa is approaching the resumption of domestic football with matches set to start kicking off this weekend. Opening up with the semi-finals of the Nedbank Cup on 8 August, league play will resume next Tuesday. One of the biggest leagues in Africa, the Premier Soccer League will return with great urgency to finish and fans eager to watch how a close title race will unfold.

The Premier Soccer League organizes South Africa’s top two divisions
Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs: The main title contenders

Of course, lurking in the background is the issue of Covid-19 and how to proceed as safely as possible. To combat infection, the plan is to finish the season in a Biologically Safe Environment (BSE), or a bubble, in a similar manner to Major League Soccer and the NBA in the United States. The bubble will be in the province of Gauteng with 14 training and 11 match venues to be made available in Johannesburg and Pretoria. After players and staff are tested a second time in a “mini-bubble” 48 hours before, South Africa Football Association’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thulani Ngwenya described his confidence in the process:

“When we have tested them for the second time and they are free of the virus, we are confident they will now be in an area we can control, and when they go to the main bubble it will be Covid-free…once they are in the bubble they will have been tested twice, and if there is no external force that can bring the virus in, there is no need to test.”

It doesn’t take too much scrutiny and pessimism to believe that Dr. Ngwenya is a bit overconfident. Just looking at the amount of personnel in the bubble is worrying. Completing South Africa’s top two divisions requires housing 32 teams that will bring up to 50 players and staff each. The location is concerning as well, with Gauteng being a hotspot for infection within the country as well as the most densely populated province. South Africa in general has not escaped the effects of Covid-19, with over 500,000 cases placing it at fifth highest in the world.

In the United States, the experiments of Major League Soccer and the NBA have had concerning incidents, but are fortunately continuing as planned. However, these leagues are testing regularly within the bubble and investing massive amounts of money to ensure safety. The NBA approximated their expenses to $150 million. The acting CEO of the South Africa Football Association estimated an investment of 100 million Rand (a little under $6 million).

There are elephants in the room that must be acknowledged: sponsorships and television deals. South Africa’s top league is the only sub-Saharan league that consistently thrives and supports itself financially due to these factors. In a Zoom meeting I attended a week ago, an English-based agent stated that the “dirty secret” about the English Premier League was that it was guaranteed to finish its season due to sponsor and television influence. There was too much money to be lost by cancelling the season, and in South Africa’s case, the pressure must be just as substantial, if not perhaps more.

South Africans are eager for football to return, and it will certainly be a boost to the morale of the country. However, it must be acknowledged that due to the pressure to return, there is a clear compromise between returning to action and maximizing safety. The authorities have pledged to remove any person who shows signs of infection, but a lack of clear testing protocol within the bubble and the potential of asymptomatic cases exposes the flimsiness of this policy. If South African authorities are not careful, then the consequences may outweigh the benefits of resumption.

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