South African club football resumes Saturday in a coronavirus pandemic epicentre amid a warning from the sports minister and the suspension of a high-profile official.
The most popular sport in the republic will restart after a five-month suspension with the Nedbank (FA) Cup semi-finals behind closed doors at Orlando Stadium in Soweto.
Minnows Baroka and Bloemfontein Celtic meet in the first match, followed by a high-profile clash between Mamelodi Sundowns and Bidvest Wits.
All 57 cup and league matches will be staged in Gauteng, the province hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed 9,298 lives nationally, the highest death toll in Africa.
The Absa Premiership resumes three days later, at another Soweto stadium, with defending champions Sundowns tackling Orlando Pirates in pursuit of a third consecutive title.
But as a country starved of live sport since mid March readies for a football feast amid a surge in COVID-19 infections, sports minister Nathi Mthethwa said rules must be obeyed.
He stressed that health protocols have to be strictly observed or he would close down football again.
“It is not a fait accompli that players just get on to the field and perform — they will play based on plans submitted to the department of health,” said the minister.
“We reserve the right to halt any activity if we feel the protocols and plans are not being adhered to.”
Mthethwa spoke as another southern Africa nation, Zambia, ended their league after 27 of 34 rounds because of escalating positive COVID-19 tests.
– Viral party videos –
Worst hit were Forest Rangers, with 28 of the staff forced to quarantine, while there were 19 positive tests at NAPSA Stars.
Zambian football officials blamed the failure of many clubs to follow anti-virus guidelines for the premature finish to the season.
In South Africa, shortly after Mthethwa issued his warning, leading Kaizer Chiefs official Bobby Motaung was barred from all football activities for allegedly ignoring coronavirus lockdown regulations.
Several videos of the son of Chiefs’ owner and chairman Kaizer Motaung partying went viral, leading to the league leaders to suspend him until at least August 31.
A Chiefs statement said Motaung, whose roles include signing players and hiring coaches, is “not allowed to accompany the team to any training sessions or matches.
“Even though he has tested negative on four occasions in mandatory COVID-19 tests, he is ordered to stay at home and self quarantine.”
As was the case when the major European leagues restarted, up to five substitutions will be permitted, rising to six if a cup tie goes to extra time.
Television rights holders SuperSport have announced they will use virtual sound effects and crowds when the season restarts.
Head of production Alvin Naicker said safety plans included staff having regular COVID-19 tests, being accommodated in hotels and commentators working from studios rather than venues.
He said sound effects were a major challenge, but practice runs had delivered encouraging results.
“The sound of Kaizer Chiefs supporters celebrating is very different to that of Maritzburg United followers,” Naicker said.