Confident but cautious

AFF C'ship will see strict safety measures but it marks a step towards normalcy

The Omicron variant has spooked many, borders have been tightened swiftly, and the easing of social measures has understandably been halted. But Singapore's resolve to return to life as it once was pre-pandemic, is still the long-term goal.

To that end, observers say the country's hosting of the Suzuki Cup, which kicks off on Sunday, can play a big part in helping the nation move forward.

Three years ago, at the last edition of the tournament, over 750,000 fans attended 26 games played in 11 cities.

This time round, with the Republic the sole host city to minimise travelling for teams, total attendances will be far more modest.

Last week, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced that 10,000 fans would be allowed to catch matches at the 55,000-capacity National Stadium, one of two venues. The other is the 6,000-seater Bishan Stadium, which will welcome a maximum of 1,000 fans - and the two Dec 12 games are already sold out.

The sheer scale of the 10-team tournament and the potential five-figure spectatorship - the largest in-person gathering for any activity here since the pandemic began - is a clear sign of Singapore's determination to learn to live with Covid-19, said Deloitte South-east Asia sports business group leader James Walton.

"In sport, business and (entertainment) we are signalling to the world that while we will take precautions with different testing regimes and measures, we are… going in the right direction," he said.

Last week, pop star JJ Lin performed in front of 2,000 fans at the Sands Theatre under vaccination-differentiated safe management measures which allowed concert-goers to sit alongside one another without the need for social distancing.

Two weeks prior, the Bloomberg New Economy Forum welcomed 300 international business and government leaders to Sentosa's Capella hotel, with strict testing requirements for delegates so as to allow for business networking.

Professor Paul Tambyah, deputy director of the infectious diseases translational research programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said the Suzuki Cup is "very significant" in Singapore's road to normalcy as it is "one step up" from the JJ Lin concert and Bloomberg forum.

"Now we will have a larger number of people outdoors and the safe conduct of this event will give the authorities more confidence to progressively open up now that we have reached a high vaccination rate, and (considering the fact) for 98 per cent of those found to be infected, the disease is mild," he said.

The FAS in September had lobbied hard to earn the Asean Football Federation's nod to host the tournament, which had been postponed a year, and Singapore's track record over the past year in hosting sports events proved key.

International athletes had featured in the Singapore Tennis Open in February and various mixed martial arts events organised by One Championship - spectators were also allowed in limited numbers - with no cases of infection arising from any of them.

Singapore beat football-mad Thailand to become host city, and Prof Tambyah said the region's top administrators will be taking notes on Singapore's hosting of the tournament.

"The world has to learn to live with the virus and this is a good event to show how this can be done," he said.

Former national player R. Sasikumar noted that Singapore was one of the last Asean nations to resume its professional football league after the pandemic began, and the authorities have kept up the careful, cautious approach which has proved prudent.

Now running a sports marketing agency, he had first-hand experience of the opposite approach when he spent September in Spain on a work trip, and said he was struck by how unaffected people there seemed.

Spain was still reporting over 6,000 cases a day when he arrived but numbers dropped to just over 2,000 by the time he left to return to Singapore.

Said Sasi: "I was watching Champions League games in the Nou Camp (stadium of Spanish giants Barcelona) with no mask, no social distancing, none of that stuff. No masks were required outdoors and in a sense it was liberating.

"I guess in Europe they moved on fairly quickly… and when I came back and learnt we were going to host the Suzuki Cup, I saw it as a sign we were going to as well."

But such laxness across many nations in Europe has come with a cost.

Dr Alex Cook, associate professor and vice-dean (research) from NUS' Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health noted that the continent's approach led to thousands of additional cases arising from the European Championship - held in June and July across 11 cities.

Concern about hosting the South-east Asian equivalent is "natural", said Dr Cook.

"But… we (won't) see spectacles like the (67,000-seat Hungarian stadium) Puskas Arena full to the brim with mask-less spectators, at Kallang or Bishan," he added.

"There will be safe management measures in place and restrictions on total numbers, so I personally would feel very comfortable attending."

The participants - up to 400 players, coaches and officials are expected to converge for the Suzuki Cup - will also be managed carefully.

All teams, including hosts Singapore, will be placed in a bubble, with movements restricted to hotels, and training and competition venues (see box).

Despite the strict measures, there are still lingering concerns.

Given the costs involved, Walton does not expect many foreign fans to travel here but said there would likely be a few "hardcore" ones who will stay for the duration of the tournament to "get their money's worth".

Unlike the teams, these fans, as well as foreign journalists covering the event - estimated to be about 40 - will not be in a bubble or have their movements restricted.

Prof Tambyah added that "hidden communities", comprising "groups of people who are marginalised and often out of sight from our excellent public health services" such as dormitory workers and social hostesses - who were two groups that experienced clusters earlier - should be observed.

"In this case (the Suzuki Cup), the group I am most concerned about would be short-term pass holders from the Asean countries who may not have been vaccinated (and) who may come to the games and slip through the testing regimes which are not 100 per cent perfect," he said, despite rules stating that only those fully vaccinated are allowed to attend games.

"As long as there is good contact tracing for anyone who may be infected after the games, I think that this is a small risk that can be taken and also mitigated."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2021, with the headline Confident but cautious. Subscribe