In the past months, stakeholders in sports have been calling for the return of sporting events after over six months break as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Gradually, recent events have shown that sport is fully back in the country.
The Presidential Task Force on COVID- 19 had earlier lifted the ban on non-contact sports but now, the entire sector is up and running. It is exciting to see the Super Eagles back together. After the two friendly games played last month in Austria against Algeria and Tunisia, the senior national team is back in the qualifying series of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
The youths in various sports disciplines will also be all out to compete in the National Sports Festival billed to take place in Benin, Edo State between December 6 and 21. However, the confirmation of the Nigeria Professional Football League kick-off date by the League Management Company is the most crucial signal about the return of sports. Football is the number one sport in Nigeria and in the last three months, football has returned in other parts of the world. Interestingly, in Europe and other parts where the current pandemic is more prevalent, football returned since August.
In the next three weeks, it is expected that the teams will double preparatory efforts for the new season. For example, 10 teams are currently taking part in the Governor Nyesom Wike pre-season football tournament which is in its second edition.
Five elite teams – Rivers United, Mountain of Fire Ministries FC, Abia Warriors, Lobi Stars and Akwa United – have used the annual event to test the readiness of their players for the new season.
Rivers United getting set for the continent will also be in better competitive shape. However, there are many other issues to be considered. Based on daily reports at home and abroad, COVID-19 is not completely off the ‘radar’ and so more precautionary measures should be in place. There should be a template to test the entire team including backroom staff while there must be fumigation of the training arena and club houses.
The test is also not a one-off as it should be regularly done. The teams should remember the importance of ambulances and medical personnel at match venues on match days. The welfare of the players is paramount as many of the teams still owing players’ salaries should pay them before resumption. Heartland FC of Owerri is a big example of teams owing players and it is not fair.
The LMC must be strict with the rules on the pitches across the country. A team with a bad pitch should be moved to a nearby centre to play because only television friendly pitches are good enough.
The LMC should also review its disciplinary rules on hooliganism and other offences. With tough penalty measures, teams will be more scared of getting into trouble. For the continental assignment in the new football season, Plateau United and Kano Pillars have been handed tough opponents in the 2020/21 CAF Champions League draws while Enyimba International of Aba and Rivers United of Port Harcourt enjoy a relatively fair fixture. According to the draws for Africa’s two continental club competitions held in Cairo, Plateau United were drawn against Tanzanian side Simba SC while Enyimba will, for the second season running face Burkina Faso champions Rahimo FC in their first match of the competition. Enyimba defeated Rahimo 5-1 on aggregate at this stage last season.
In the Confederation Cup, Rivers United were handed an easy tie against Futuro Kings of Equatorial Guinea while Kano Pillars have a tough task against ASC Jaraaf of Senegal. The delay in the return of football is most likely going to affect the continental teams expected to be on duty in the weekend of November 27-29 and the weekend of December 4 – 6. The doctors and physiotherapists will have to do more at a time like this because the players have been off action for a long time.
Rivers United have an advantage with the laudable Wike pre-season tourney, other continental teams and teams aspiring for honours in the league should try and play pre-season friendlies or tournaments to be very ready for the challenges ahead.
It is important for teams to seek sponsors to avoid owing the players and to ensure all logistics on travels and all are well handled just as the LMC should also intensify efforts to get title sponsors for the league and also look at other ways to boost the domestic football competition. Fans will have to be patient until the coast is clear and this is the best time to ensure the league is on television.