Restarting the Singapore Premier League safely

The Singapore Premier League resumed on Oct 17 after local-based club players, match officials took Covid-19 test and all tested negative

During Singapore's circuit breaker in April, Tampines Rovers midfielder Yasir Hanapi swopped his yellow Stags jersey for the green of GrabFood.

It was not a career change, however, for the Stags captain.

With the support of the club, the 31-year-old took up the role of delivery rider, using his bicycle to maintain his fitness when the football season and non-essential work ground to a halt.

The nine-team Singapore Premier League (SPL) had kicked off on Feb 29 with 13 matches played before the tournament was suspended on March 24 as a result of enhanced measures introduced amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

"Things were uncertain back then and there were rumours that the league would not continue," said the father of two.

Tampines Rovers midfielder and captain Yasir Hanapi uses a massage gun to relax his muscles in preparation for a Singapore Premier League match at home on Nov 12, 2020. With the approval of the club, Mr Yasir decided to become a GrabFood delivery rider during the circuit breaker in order to maintain his fitness as he delivers on his bicycle. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Most clubs had mulled over the idea of wage cuts as their jackpot machine operations, a primary source of revenue for most of them, were disrupted.

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) eventually stepped in and offered subsidies to aid the clubs during the difficult period and prevent wage cuts.

In the SPL, most Singapore internationals earn between $5,000 and $10,000 monthly - comparable to foreign imports - while local under-23 players starting out earn between $500 and $2,500.

Stags 42-year-old defender and vice-captain Daniel Bennett - who has been living in Johor Baru since 2013 and commutes daily between Malaysia and Singapore - endured a lengthy 7½-month separation from his family until they were able to relocate back to Singapore last month.

Tampines Rovers defender Daniel Bennett checking in with SafeEntry at the players' entrance of Bishan Stadium before the away game against Balestier Khalsa. All players, coaches and officials will be required to download and activate the TraceTogether app as well as perform SafeEntry check-in and outs for all training sessions in compliance with the respective venue requirements. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Tampines Rovers midfielder Zehrudin Mehmedovic (left) waiting his turn, as goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari (centre) and forward Boris Kopitovic soak in ice baths to aid recovery after training. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Tampines Rovers have four foreign players - Jordan Webb from Canada, Boris Kopitovic from Montenegro, Zehrudin Mehmedovic from Serbia and Kyoga Nakamura from Japan.

When the league was put on hold, the club granted Webb leave to return home in May to be with his family in Canada.

After the situation in Singapore stabilised and the teams were allowed to resume training, Tampines Rovers applied to have him return. The application was approved on the third attempt and the forward returned to Singapore on July 11 and served his 14-day quarantine.

Nakamura started a YouTube channel during the circuit breaker to document his playing adventure in Singapore.

Daily Zoom workouts helped to keep them engaged as the 23 players stayed at home and coach Gavin Lee and assistant coach Mustafic Fahrudin called them regularly.

Tampines Rovers players during recovery training at Our Tampines Hub on Nov 13, 2020, the day after a match. Recovery, staying injury-free and being consistent are especially important this season given its tight schedule. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Tampines Rovers kit man Goh Koon Hiang sanitising the footballs after the team's training on Nov 13, 2020. Training equipment used for football drills and practice sessions must also be disinfected after each use. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Tampines Rovers defender Madhu Mohana drinking from his personalised bottle during training at Our Tampines Hub on Nov 12, 2020. The players' water bottles are labelled with their respective jersey numbers to avoid mix-up. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Under strict guidelines and protocols implemented by FAS, as advised by the Health Promotion Board, Ministry of Health and Sport Singapore, the eight local-based clubs returned to training on June 20.

The players and trainers could gather only in groups of five with no contact allowed. Full-team practice restarted only on Sept 1.

Defending champions DPMM FC, based in Brunei, withdrew from the league due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The football competition, which was suspended for almost seven months, resumed on Oct 17 after a total of 223 players from the eight local-based clubs and SPL match officials took the polymerase chain reaction swab test and all tested negative. These tests are conducted every two weeks for the same group of personnel.

Tampines Rovers players queueing up to undergo fortnightly swab testing for Covid-19 at the former Siglap Secondary School in Pasir Ris, on Nov 15, 2020. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Tampines Rovers defenders Baihakki Khaizan (left) and Madhu Mohana undergoing the fortnightly swab testing conducted by HPB staff at the former Siglap Secondary School in Pasir Ris on Nov 15, 2020. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

But the disruptions meant the players were not at the peak of their fitness when the season restarted.

"The players are at a higher risk of injury especially because we now have to play a game every four days on average in order to complete the season on time," said Stags coach Lee.

"Fatigue can build up quickly so it is important to give the players more rest in between games. Having to rest players also means that there will be times when we cannot play our strongest team."

The season will end on Dec 5. Tampines Rovers are currently second in the table after Albirex Niigata.

With a safety distancing banner seen in the background, players from Tampines Rovers and Balestier Khalsa doing customary pre-match greetings with fist and wrist bumps instead of handshakes at Bishan Stadium on Nov 12, 2020. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
The substitutes bench at Bishan Stadium. A temporary amendment to the player substitution rule allows each team to use a maximum of five substitutes. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

While SPL fans are not allowed into the stadiums, they are able to catch the action live as every match is broadcast on Singtel TV, StarHub TV and myCujoo, as well as streamed online via the SPL and 1 Play Sports Facebook pages.

Despite knowing their teams are playing behind closed doors with only essential match-day personnel present on site, the fans have remained steadfast in their support.

Nothing beats live action for engineer Pang Jia Tai, 28, a member of the Yellow Knights - one of the unofficial supporters' groups for Tampines Rovers.

"For us fans, the circuit breaker was hell. So bored. No football. I was watching SPL games on repeat mode via YouTube," said Mr Pang, who has been a supporter since he was 10 years old.

A small group of Tampines Rovers fans supporting their team against Balestier Khalsa from outside Bishan Stadium on Nov 12, 2020. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Wearing masks and adhering to social distancing, a small group of Stags supporters turned up outside Bishan Stadium to support an away game against Balestier Khalsa.

Despite being asked by officials to leave a vantage point at Bishan Sports Hall for fear of violating safety rules, the fiercely loyal few ended up in pairs outside the stadium and watched through small openings along the hedge, standing a metre apart.

"In normal times, we would be inside the stadium with our drums. Since we can't, we just want to show our support, while complying with safety rules."