The 2020/21 DSTV Premiership has been able to continue pretty much as scheduled, with minor changes to proceedings due to the National Coronavirus guidelines. The season has gone most would expect it to, with reigning champions, Mamelodi Sundowns enjoying themselves at the top of the table, with no losses in their last five matches. One shock is how low Kaizer Chiefs find themselves, with the South African powerhouse only one point shy of the relegation spots.
One thing that players have had to get used to is playing their games behind closed doors, with no fans in attendance. As most soccer fans will understand, the crowd plays a huge part in how players perform, but this season, players have had to motivate themselves. Kamohelo Sehloho, a young Bloemfontein Celtic player explains that the experience is almost alien, “it’s hard to motivate yourself because the fans aren’t there to cheer you on,” he said, “When you’re losing, they hype you up, and that’s not there anymore.”
This has had a great effect on performance, with senior professionals struggling for form, and fans at home hungry for the stadium atmosphere. Only a select few players have managed to score more than five goals so far this season, with Bradley Grobler of Supersport United, Cape Town City’s Mduduzi Mdantsane and Sundowns’ Themba Zwane leading the pack and chasing the golden boot.
Sehloho elaborated on the players’ struggles, saying, “a few of the first team members have complained that it’s really difficult to go and play, especially with Celtic having one of the best supports in SA, it’s just a bit difficult for them to play without the support at home games.” Furthermore, the benches have been struggling for unity, as regulations expect them to respect social-distancing protocols and sit in the stands, instead of sitting with the team and coaches.
Matches don’t feel the same anymore and players are saying that they feel “like just another training game.” This has been testing players’ commitment to their game of choice and is seriously affecting team morale and even mental health.
Training has been affected as well, with players being screened before being allowed access to training grounds. “We are tested every two weeks, both the development and the first team,” explained Sehloho, “To gain access to the grounds, we have to sanitise and wear our masks. We even practice social-distancing off the pitch.” This seems to be our new normal, and it is being done for the safety of our players, but it is affecting them in different ways.
Player morale is being affected, and teammates are unable to spend as much time, as they normally would, together. “You go to the field, you practice, you come off and you leave immediately. Nobody can hang around the training grounds.”
South African coaches are known to prefer experience over youth, with players who are 24 years old still being considered as youngsters. Meanwhile, in Europe, 24 year olds are considered seasoned professionals who are playing in their prime. The training regulations because of Covid-19 has led to many development team training sessions being canceled, which further hinders local young players’ growth in the game. “It’s pure luck if you get into the first team at 20 or 21,” explained Sehloho.
“Youngsters in South Africa don’t get opportunities like the ones in Europe,” he said. This season is proving to be a challenge for everyone involved, so let’s just hope that the South African Football Association knows how to steer players and coaches out of this mess.