Tokyo 2020 Two days to go

South Africa try to escape 'the guillotine'

Depleted squad due to Covid-19 a sign of how teams need to deal with pandemic difficulties

Members of South Africa's Olympic football team wearing masks and leaving after their training session in Chiba on Monday. They face hosts Japan tomorrow in their opener.
Members of South Africa's Olympic football team wearing masks and leaving after their training session in Chiba on Monday. They face hosts Japan tomorrow in their opener.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • The first major test of how the Olympics can be held in the midst of a pandemic may well come this week in the men's football tournament when Japan face a South Africa side who could struggle to field 11 players due to the coronavirus tomorrow.

Not only were the South Africans severely depleted by Covid-19 infections and withdrawals before they left for the Games, but they have since also been hit with the news that two of their players and a video analyst had tested positive on arrival in Tokyo.

Games organisers said late on Monday that 21 members of the delegation were close contacts, leaving South Africa walking a tightrope ahead of tomorrow's opening match against the hosts.

The Olympic playbook on coronavirus prevention measures mandates that to compete, a close contact must return daily negative polymerase chain reaction tests, including one within six hours of competition.

They must also undergo a health check by an expert and receive permission from their international sporting federation.

Fifa regulations stipulate a team must have 13 available players for a match to go ahead and South Africa coach David Notoane admitted the daily testing means he has no idea who will be able to take the field to face the Japanese.

"You are not even sure who will be eligible for your (starting) 11 because of the situation we are in, testing every day," he said of his players, who had been self-isolating, returning to training only on Monday after a week off the practice pitch.

"Their (Japan's) physical readiness compared to us will be a key issue. It will make a huge difference. We basically lost seven days and that is hard to recover from."

The biggest blow for Notoane will be the loss of midfielder Kamohelo Mahlatsi, who along with defender James Monyane, has been ruled out of the game because of the virus.

Mahlatsi, already capped five times at senior level, was set to be South Africa's playmaker here and his absence has thrown the team's plans into disarray.

"We are there on the guillotine at the moment and we have to find a way to escape it," Notoane said.

"Our key player tested positive, we were building our game plan around him. Our job has become more difficult. But at the end of the day, we have to put up a team on Thursday to face up to the might of Japan.

"This storm can just swallow you, that is the fight we are going to have in terms of the off-field influences.

"Our biggest opponent is not Japan to be honest, it's the outside factors. Because it has become about more than football. Physically, we are at a huge disadvantage against a team that is highly athletic."

There have been 71 cases detected among those accredited for the Games since July 1, including a Czech beach volleyball player and an alternate for the US women's gymnastics team, the organisers said yesterday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2021, with the headline 'South Africa try to escape 'the guillotine''. Subscribe