Elite sports in South-east Asia play waiting game as Covid-19 continues to disrupt plans

Johor Darul Ta'zim skipper Hariss Harun is relying on Zoom sessions to stay fit.
Johor Darul Ta'zim skipper Hariss Harun is relying on Zoom sessions to stay fit.PHOTO: JOHOR DARUL TAKZIM

SINGAPORE - Hariss Harun is struck by the feeling of deja vu. Almost a year ago, the footballer was stuck indoors recovering from knee surgery during Singapore’s circuit breaker and had to do most of his physiotherapy sessions remotely while the Malaysia Super League (MSL) season was suspended. 

The Johor Darul Takzim skipper now finds himself in a similar position as Malaysia is under a second movement control order (MCO) and instead of being on the pitch for pre-season training, he is relying on Zoom sessions to stay fit.

WIth the MCO scheduled to end on Feb 18, the start of the MSL has been moved from Feb 26 to March 5 but even this new timeline remains in doubt.

Hariss, 30, told The Straits Times: "I'm hoping that in the best case scenario they can come up with standard of procedures for the teams that are participating like what they're doing in Europe."

He is keeping himself occupied by completing course work for his degree in business and marketing but said the unpredictability has been unsettling.

He added: "As a footballer, when we come for pre-season, we know we'll be training for a few weeks before the season, then we're playing for something every weekend. So you're so used to this lifestyle, but all of a sudden it's uncertain and we don't know when the next game will be."

His predicament is reflective of the reality for many athletes in the region. With sudden surges in cases and stricter measures to contain the spread of new coronavirus variants, it is a waiting game for major sports competitions around South-east Asia.

V. League 1, Vietnam’s top professional football competition involving 14 teams, kicked off its 2021 season on Jan 15, but was halted this week following a sharp increase in cases in the country.

After almost two months without local transmissions, its health ministry reported two local transmissions last Thursday. Authorities are now attempting to contain new clusters, which has infected more than 390 people and spread to 12 provinces and cities.

Over in the Philippines, efforts to host the third round of qualifiers for the 2021 Asia Cup basketball tournament in a bio-secure bubble at a former US military base north of Manila have been in vain.

Unable to secure government exemptions for travel curbs for visiting athletes, the Feb 18-22 event was last week moved to Qatar.

The likes of Singapore and Thailand have however, enjoyed some success in bringing international events back to their sporting calendars.

The Republic has staged several One Championship mixed martial arts live shows since last October, with up to 250 fans allowed into the Indoor Stadium. The country also hosted the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) M2 World Championship last month, with the Covid-19 safe management protocols lauded by many.

Nicholas Khoo, co-founder of Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association (Scoga), which was one of the organisers, noted: "It's a real testament of Singapore's ability to not just stage big esports events but hopefully many other major events safely."

Bangkok has also shown itself to be a workable venue. The city over three consecutive weeks last month hosted three high level tournaments - the Yonex and Toyota Thailand Open and the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour Finals - in a bubble without spectators.

The Thai League 1 football competition, which was halted twice since it began last February, also restarted on Jan 31 without fans though the situation remains precarious. Just weeks ago, Mr Sathit Pitutecha, Thailand's Deputy Public Health Minister, had warned games might have to be postponed for two months.

Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, who plays for Samut Prakan City, knows that the situation may change at any time. Izwan, 30, said: "At this point of time, I'm looking at it day by day. This virus isn't going to go away, we'll just have to adapt."

Despite the fluid state of affairs, organisers are moving ahead with their plans. The continent's main golf circuit, the Asian Tour, has been dormant since last March but is hoping to get back into the swing things later in the second quarter of this year, its chief executive Cho Minn Thant told ST last month.

Other marquee golf events like the Honda LPGA Thailand and HSBC Women's World Championship, both part of the elite women's LPGA Tour, are scheduled to tee off in late April and May. Vietnam's domestic golf league, the VGA Tour 2021, will start in May and feature five professional tournaments.

At least two BWF badminton events are expected in Malaysia in late March while the 2021 Philippine Basketball Association season is slated to start in April.

South-east Asia's two biggest events this year, the Nov 21-Dec 2 SEA Games in Hanoi and December's Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, remain unchanged for now.

Vietnam's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Nguyen Ngoc Thien, who is head of the organising committee, last month gave an update that preparations for the 31st Games were underway, reported State-run VietnamPlus news site.