It may not have been the most glamorous fixture, but when Aston Villa and Sheffield United played out a drab goalless draw in an empty Villa Park on June 18, millions of football fans in Africa had cause to cheer.
The return of the English Premier League – which is estimated to be supported by around 300m fans on the continent – offers a much-needed distraction to Africans who remain under lockdown and confined to their homes. While many of the bustling bars where fans congregate to watch their favourite teams will remain closed, the competition’s month-long denouement will be avidly watched on TV sets and smartphones across the continent.
The outlook for football in Africa itself, which has been heavily constrained during the pandemic, is more mixed. In May, the Federation of Kenyan Football controversially announced the cancellation of the 2019/20 season of the Kenyan Premier League [KPL] and other top flight leagues, which had been suspended since March. The Nigerian Professional Football League, which was also suspended in March, has yet to decide on a way forward amid government reluctance.
Yet elsewhere there are signs of a gradual return. The South African government has announced that the 16 top flight teams of the ABSA Premiership will resume training in preparation for the remaining 54 matches – each team has between 6 and 9 games left to play. There are hopes that the league could restart in mid-July and conclude in mid-August.
Of course, the return to competition will be far from routine, and leagues lack the extensive resources of the deep-pocketed English Premier League. South Africa, which operates one of the continent’s richest leagues, is expected to place all of its teams in one province rather than following the English model of allowing clubs to play at their home grounds.
The clubs will have to undertake rigorous testing before they return to training and competition – on 22 June, Stellenbosch FC announced that three players had tested positive. All games will be played behind closed doors, severely limiting revenues.
There will undoubtedly be challenges ahead and safety must be prioritised, but for stricken clubs and their players, the return of football to live television offers a critical financial lifeline. The lives of many top-flight African footballers are a world away from those of the pampered multi-millionaires of the English Premier League – according to the KPL, 50% of its footballers earn an average monthly salary of just $200, and many have been forced to take a pay cut.
For them, and the millions of fans who joyously cheer them on, football is more than a game, and its return simply cannot come quickly enough.