Fate of South African Premiership season to be decided Friday

Johannesburg (AFP) – South African Absa Premiership officials say they will decide Friday whether to restart the richest league in the continent or cancel it amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The league sponsors and broadcasters favour the 16-club championship resuming with all matches behind closed doors in Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg.

But club officials remained tight-lipped Thursday about the likely outcome, with many telling AFP there were arguments for and against resuming.

A major worry is that Gauteng is the epicentre of the COVID-19 disease, which claimed 5,940 lives in the republic by Wednesday, the highest toll in an African nation.

Absa, one of the five major banks in South Africa, are withdrawing as Premiership sponsors when the 2019/2020 season concludes.

A spokesman for the company said “Absa are keen for the league to be decided on the field rather than in the boardroom”.

Premiership football is a major drawcard for TV rights holders SuperSport, a pay-to-view sport channel based in Johannesburg.

There are 54 outstanding league fixtures, with clubs having between six and nine fixtures to fulfil, and the Nedbank (FA) Cup has reached the semi-finals stage.

Teams have been warned by league boss Irvin Khoza that they will lose their 2.5 million rand ($150,000/130,000 euro) monthly grant unless football restarts.

Club officials estimate it costs between 3.5 and four million rand each month to run a top-flight club so the grant plays a significant role.

After 11 match venues and 14 training grounds were chosen in Gauteng, Premiership officials wanted the league to restart on July 18.

– ‘Obstructionist’ –

But the South African Football Association (Safa) said the league could not resume until August 1, citing the need for referees to achieve match fitness.

Former FIFA and Premiership referee and league official Ace Ncobo dismissed this claim as “obstructionist”.

“I mentor some of the referees, speak to them frequently, and know for a fact that most of them are ready,” he said.

“They kept fit during the coronavirus lockdown by exercising individually. The only thing they need now is to undergo COVID-19 tests.”

Many league officials believe Safa want to show the league that they run football in South Africa, a charge the association vehemently denies.

Long-serving official Khulu Sibiya from SuperSport United admits that “the relationship between the league and Safa is very, very fragile.

“We must end this them-and-us situation which creates continuous friction that benefits nobody and sets South African football backwards.”

Kaizer Chiefs top the table, four points ahead of defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns having played one match more.

At the other end of the standings, only seven points separate seven clubs desperate to avoid relegation.

Demotion comes at a heavy cost in South Africa with the team finishing last in the Premiership earning 140,000 rand more than the second division champions.

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