South Africa to restart richest African league amid pandemic

Johannesburg (AFP) – South African football was given government approval Wednesday to resume the Absa Premiership — the richest league in the continent — although the coronavirus pandemic has not peaked.

The most industrialised African country recorded 106,108 COVID-19 infections and 2,102 fatalities by Wednesday, with health minister Zweli Mkhize warning the worst is yet to come.

There has been no live football, rugby or cricket, the most popular sports in the republic, since a national lockdown was introduced during March.

It began at level five — the highest — and is currently at stage three with most of the economy restarting, but not contact sport.

The government said the 16 Premiership clubs can resume training immediately and restart the $2.3 million (2 mn euro) league in which teams have between six and nine games to play.

No date has been set for the resumption, but the championship is unlikely to finish by the recommended FIFA deadline of July 31, and officials are expected to seek an extension.

Mamelodi Sundowns and Bidvest Wits, the two teams with nine outstanding fixtures, would have to start playing by July 4 in order to finish their schedule at the end of next month.

To do so they would have only nine days to prepare, well short of the minimum three weeks proposed by several Premiership coaches, including Sundowns’ Pitso Mosimane.

A mid-July resumption seems probable with the Premiership concluding about four weeks later in the middle of August.

League officials have opted not to follow the example of major European leagues, who allow clubs to play behind closed doors at their home grounds.

– Bio bubble –

Instead, the South Africans clubs will be based in one area with Johannesburg/Pretoria and Durban/Pietermaritzburg reportedly the favourites to become the Premiership bio bubble.

“Finishing the season in one province is our best option,” Premiership chairman Irvin Khoza told reporters.

“We have to control the environment because the risk is all over at the moment and we want to minimise it.”

Although no spectators will be permitted to watch the remaining 54 league matches and the Nedbank (FA) Cup semi-finals and final, virtually all games are likely to be broadcast live.

The stage is set for a thrilling climax to the league with famed Soweto club Kaizer Chiefs leading by four points as they chase a first trophy in five seasons.

Sundowns lie second in pursuit of a record-equalling third consecutive title and have played one match less than Chiefs.

Chiefs won 2-0 at Sundowns during the first round and the next clash between the teams is likely to have a major bearing on who pockets the $865,000 first prize.

Sundowns are chasing a double as they will face Wits for a place in the FA Cup final against Baroka or Bloemfontein Celtic.

At the other end of the table, only seven points separate seven clubs fighting to avoid relegation to the far less lucrative second tier.

Apart from the prizes on offer in the league and three knockout competitions, Premiership clubs receive $145,000 monthly grants, whereas second division sides get $23,000.