Many South African sportspeople are based in Europe and with the continent now the centre of the Covid-19 pandemic, they find themselves in the midst of the worst epidemic to hit Europe since the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1918.
“It is certainly a difficult time,” admits the defence coach for the Italian national rugby team, Marius Goosen. “But we must accept it and move on.”
Italy is now the country most affected by the coronavirus, with more than 8000 deaths recorded at the time of publication. Considering that it is possible to contract the virus and not display symptoms, it’s plausible that the number of those who have Covid-19 is much higher than public figures. For this reason, the Italian government issued a lockdown on 9 March. Two days later, every non-essential shop was shut.
Apart from doctors, nurses and those providing essential services, people in Italy can leave their houses only to go to work (if they need to be physically present to do their job), buy food or go to a pharmacy. It is mandatory to carry a self-declaration form stating the reason you have left your house.
“Personally, I am not experiencing it so badly,” says Goosen, “because I have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my family that I usually see little of. We will see, my wife and children, what they will say in a few days, if they get tired of me,” he adds, laughing.
Life in Italy
The former Blue Bulls and Stormers player has been the defence coach for the Benetton Treviso rugby union team and the national team for a few years. He lives in the province of Treviso in the Veneto region, which is among the most affected northern regions with almost 7 000 cases on 26 March.
“Fortunately we live in the countryside, away from the city chaos, and we can go out to our home’s back yard every time we want to get some fresh air,” says Goosen. He works alongside interim national head coach Franco Smith, also a South African.
“Franco left Italy just in time, before the quarantine was imposed, and he was very happy to have managed to join the family,” says Goosen. “It never crossed my mind to leave, my life is here. I understand the South African Benetton players who have returned to South Africa, apart from rugby they have nothing to keep them tied to Italy.”
Flanker Braam Steyn is of the same opinion. He is also on the books of Benetton Treviso, one of two Italian franchises participating in the Pro14 league alongside South Africa’s Cheetahs and Southern Kings.
Despite being far from his family, “I also have never thought about leaving Italy at this time,” says the former Sharks player. “I have been in Italy for seven years and now my life is here. If I could choose the place to live in, I would always choose Treviso.”
Like Goosen, Steyn says seeking out the opportunities for personal growth that the lockdown can offer is useful.
“It is very hard for me not to be able to leave the house, because I am always around with my friends in the city centre. But I think that in this stalemate, we have the chance to reflect a lot on ourselves, on what is really important for us and on people worth investing time and energy on,” he says. “These are the moments in which we realise that in life we often get caught up in trivial things and give importance to things of little value.”
There will be plenty of time to reflect. The strict measures included in the Italian government’s “I stay home” decree are valid until 3 April. It is essential for people to keep their distance from each other to contain the outbreak and so Benetton has stopped training for at least two weeks. This will inevitably affect its players’ fitness.
“I train as much as I can, following the programme agreed with the club, and do the little daily things that I never have time to do. For the rest, being alone at home, I have to rely on creativity to invent something that will keep me busy,” says Steyn.
Finding solace in art
Further north, in France, Strasbourg striker Lebogang Mothiba is keeping busy with his other passion. “I am an artist. I also drew in South Africa, but then football became my life. Despite this, I still love drawing, especially faces, and now I have much more time to do it,” says the Bafana Bafana forward.
President Emmanuel Macron imposed a lockdown in France on 15 March, but Mothiba had already been holed up in his house for days because of injury. His routine, therefore, hasn’t undergone major changes.
“I didn’t even go out before, except to go to the physiotherapist every morning at 11am. I immediately realised that it was a serious matter,” he says.
The same cannot be said for the rest of France’s population, who continued to fill clubs in Paris and stroll along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées up until the government’s lockdown on Sunday 15 March. France had almost 30 000 confirmed cases, including over 1 500 deaths, at the time of publication.
Message to South Africans
In Portugal, the situation is less dramatic. Confirmed cases had reached over 3 500 with 60 deaths by 27 March. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared a state of emergency on 18 March, adopting the Italian model like much of Europe.
Thibang Phete, better known as Cafu, plays football for Belenenses and lives in the capital city of Lisbon. The former Milano United midfielder says other countries, including Portugal, have acted too late.
“We had the examples of China and Italy under our eyes. In Portugal, they should have taken restrictive measures and suspended the league earlier. They instead waited for the number of infected people to grow,” says Phete.
He is concerned for his home country as well, where the spread of the virus has been dramatic although there were no fatalities at the time of publishing. “It is difficult to manage an emergency of this size in such a large country and I am afraid that South Africa is not prepared. I told my family and friends to be very careful, because people seem to have not yet realised the seriousness of the situation.”
Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa appears to be among those who haven’t learnt from what is happening in Europe. He has said football can go ahead behind closed doors despite the South African Football Association suspending all play until 4 April, when “there will be further assessment” according to Safa president Danny Jordaan.
Playing behind closed doors didn’t stop the spread of the virus in Italy. “And what would be the positive message [of continuing to play football]? To jeopardise the health of footballers and professionals?” asks Phete.