Malaysia’s sporting world braces for lengthy hiatus as Covid-19 wreaks havoc on seasons

R. Loheswar
Norza said the earliest for events or fans might return was the last quarter of this year. — Bernama pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 9 — Several sporting associations have suggested it could take up to a year before any sports events can even be staged in Malaysia or globally, with non-essential activities and large gatherings prohibited to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.

Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) and Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) president Datuk Seri Norza Zakaria told Malay Mail the earliest for events or fans might return was the last quarter of this year.

Professional sports is facing significant uncertainties due to Covid-19, both because of the large spectator crowds typically involved and its recreational nature.

“When the MCO (movement control order) is lifted, life will not be the same as there will be rules of engagement on how to assimilate back into normal life, because I don’t think we can just immediately return to normal,” said Norza when contacted.

“Social distancing is the crux of the plan, and that will definitely be in effect, because we can’t eliminate the virus until we have a vaccine or cure.

“So say we have an international tournament, that means we have to open up our borders for the players, umpires, referees and so on to come in.  With so much uncertainty looming, whatever we want to do may have to be done in the late 2020 or early 2021,” he added.

Malaysia has so far extended its movement control order (MCO), resulting in all sporting leagues and several major events like the Malaysian Open Badminton championships in March to be postponed indefinitely.

Globally, popular tournaments such as the English Premier League, and the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball in the United States have also put their current season on hold, while the 2020 Olympics is set to be postponed to next year.

Norza said Malaysia should take the example of Olympics host country Japan.

“That’s why they postponed it. They have to play it very safe. They know they can’t do anything for the next few months,” he added, alluding to Japan which went on lockdown this week.

Former national hockey player-turned-coach K. Dharmaraj felt the same as Norza, adding that paranoia and fear of the unknown would weigh on attendance at sporting events.

He said the advent of technology and live telecasts would also make it less likely that sports fans would gamble on contracting Covid-19 to watch events in person for the time being.

“Take football, for example. We’re talking about big crowds. If you want them to sit far away from each other that’s not possible,” said Dharmaraj when contacted.

“Then look at countries with huge populations like the US, Indonesia and India who still have rising cases while nations like Pakistan, from what I’ve heard, are having a hard time handling the outbreak as they are struggling with medical aid.

“In all honestly I’m looking at the end of the year, maybe November or December before people start coming back to watch matches and by that time I wonder it the teams are ready to play as they haven’t been training,” added Dharmaraj, who is currently the coach for Indonesia's West Java province.

Outdoor cycling events that draw the most crowds will also be affected. The Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious event, is usually held from June to July. Leading up to it is the Giro D Italia held from May until June which has now been postponed.

Italy is one of the countries most affected by Covid-19 and could be avoided by visitors due to the 17,127 deaths from 135,586 infections so dar.

“My personal opinion I hope by mid-July or early August we can get back to organising tournaments,” said Malaysian National Cycling Federation vice-president Datuk Amarjit Singh.

“The problem, however, is the athletes may not be prepared as no one has been able to train properly since the outbreak.

“I’m expecting a drop in numbers once the MCO is lifted as people will still prefer to be cautious rather than go out, but the situation right now regarding this Covid-19 is fluid and can change at any time,” he added.

“We are guided by the health ministry and other international laws, which is why we postponed the 2020 Asian Road Championships which was supposed to be held last month. We’re still looking if we can continue the program if not we may cancel this year’s championships.”

Ramalingam said not even hardcore football fans would return in the same numbers as before. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

Football Association of Malaysia secretary-general Stuart Ramalingam said many hardcore fans likely cannot wait to watch their favourite teams in action, but believed not even this group would return in the same numbers as before.

“They’ll come back in phases,” said Stuart when contacted.

“There’s still the issue of going back to school, mosques and work which will make most people cautious. Which is why I feel in the early phase it’ll be slow, but once the government provides clarity that the situation is clear they’ll come back.”

Stuart added that a lot will also depend on what are the conditions the government sets in place after MCO is lifted. He said it’ll depend on what sort of rules and conditions they set for gatherings and the numbers they allow.

“Once the MCO is over there’ll be restrictions that come with it. So we must see the conditions set by the government.

“If the conditions are not more than 50 people can gather, then sports can carry on. If the numbers are smaller than we may have to play behind closed doors,” added Stuart.

If the MCO is extended, football teams will struggle to pay their employees wages.

The Malaysian Football League (MFL), which handles the local leagues, has suspended all football activities until the MCO is lifted.

Its chief executive Datuk Abdul Ghani Hassan said it has prepared several alternatives to continue the 2020 season domestic football calendar if the MCO ends on April 14. The new format will be shared if and when the government announces it.

He said MFL will not force anyone to attend matches once the MCO is lifted, allowing the people take their time and decide when it’s safe to return for themselves.

He also has encouraged clubs to negotiate with their players and staff on how they can help each other during this testing time as sponsorship and tv money dries up due to the MCO.

“We have to accept the fact that some teams will be ok, some will struggle to pay their way,” Abdul Ghani told Malay Mail.

“There are some teams who have already started renegotiating their contracts in harmony which I urge the rest to do as we will only restart the league once the health ministry and the national safety council allow it.

“Fifa have provided some guidance on how contracts can be renegotiated which I hope the clubs and players look at,” he added, referring to the world football federation.

Fifa is trying to come up with a plan to deal with the aftermath of the frozen seasons and the eventual restart of football and all of the business that goes along with it.

Its main focus is on player contracts and transfer windows — periods when clubs can buy and sell players’ contracts.

But with no certainty as to when the current seasons will end, Fifa has proposed that clubs extend the contracts of players whose agreements were to expire this summer until the seasons can be finished.

While outdoor or mainstream sports struggle and have no way of knowing how to get their fans back to the stadiums and halls, e-sports enthusiasts may have it easier due to a unique set of circumstances.

Farouq says E-sports sponsors will be chomping at the bits to spend their budget during the rest of the year once the MCO is lifted. ― AFP pic

Most E-sports competitions are held in supermarkets and malls where makeshift booths that house opposing teams play in front of a live audience while the action is televised on a big screen.

According to E-Sports Malaysia’s communications director Muhamad Farouq Abdul Patah, once the malls open and people start coming back their viewership will return as well.

“People will be yearning to go back to the malls and watch a movie, eat and hang around as they’d be missing these things. So I expect our crowd to be back as well,” said Farouq when contacted.

“If we have tournaments, hardcore fans will come to catch a glimpse of their favourite players and won’t mind travelling far distances.”

Farouq said there is almost a tournament every weekend in Malaysia and since all of those scheduled for March and April have been cancelled, sponsors will be chomping at the bits to spend their budget during the rest of the year once the MCO is lifted.

“The later part of the calendar will be packed with tournaments as all those cancelled tournaments due to the MCO will be replaced and sponsors will ramp up their marketing,” said Farouq.

“The first event back after the MCO is lifted will be the benchmark to see if people are coming out of their houses and willing to gather around crowds. That will be the sign our industry is back to normal.”

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