Of all the challenges Bidvest Wits experienced over the 148 days between Nedbank Cup fixtures against Real Kings (on 13 March before football was paused due to Covid-19) and Mamelodi Sundowns (on 8 August when football returned), preparing for life in the Premier Soccer League’s (PSL) biologically safe environment (BSE) wasn’t the most stressful.
In an already unique situation, my involvement in the bubble was made even more unique because Wits will cease to exist at the end of the season following the sale of the club’s top-flight status to Thohoyandou-based Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila. Ironically, the “bubble” which is Bidvest Wits football club will burst inside the confines of the bio-bubble. A sort of bubble inception.
The oldest football club in South Africa will not get their Bidvest Stadium swansong or Nedbank Cup final goodbye. No, after 99 years of existence the final night will be spent at a Rosebank hotel following a soon-to-become Limpopo Derby against Polokwane City at FNB Stadium on 5 September. A near century of history will come to an end at the same venue where the proud club lifted the Absa Premiership trophy just three years ago. From the same venue, Wits lifted the Nedbank Cup on 22 May 2010 – the first game in the new-look stadium that hosted the first Fifa World Cup match on African soil.
I entered the biologically safe environment on 12 August, two days after undergoing a compulsory Covid-19 test and electrocardiogram. Having had an Ampath employee quite literally pick my brains with what can best be described as an earbud on steroids, I was instructed to self quarantine at home while awaiting the outcome of my test result.
In anticipation, I had already stocked up with “camp” goodies including my favourite cappuccino sachets, considering I won’t be able to go to the shops for the duration of my stay. With my results having come back as negative the next day, I could now officially depart for the much-talked-about bubble on the day of Wits’ league game versus Kaizer Chiefs at Orlando Stadium.
A mere six hours before kick-off, I was greeted with a routine temperature check and a thorough sanitisation of my luggage in the hotel lobby, before I could officially check in. I had little time to settle, but rushed to get all my things unpacked in the room I’d call home for the immediate future, before setting off to the match venue for the first of nine league matches in the next 25 days.
Being alone with your team
Wits defender Zitha Macheke is among those who have embraced the good and bad of life in the PSL’s bio-bubble, and has come to cherish the bus rides to and from the club’s training base at Johannesburg Stadium, and the different match venues.
“It is tricky because we are encouraged not to share a confined space with our teammates so most of the time you are on your own,” says Macheke. “Only when we get on the bus is it a normal environment. Being cooped up in your room on your own is really not nice, but when we are on the bus on our way to training that is the moment we share jokes with the guys. After training, it is back to the hotel, back to the room. Same routine over and over again.”
The Clever Boys have managed to hold their own despite an uncertain future for some of the players.
“To be honest I am happy with our performances thus far, it shows the professionalism in the team. Besides everything that has happened with the team, you can see the positive attitude within the camp,” Macheke said.
While players earn their keep on the field of play, the club medical staff are on call 24/7 in the bio-bubble. Team doctor Peter Baxter has taken office in the top corner of the hotel, where his room has been transformed into a comprehensive doctor’s room equipped with all his necessary equipment.
From a stethoscope, patella hammer, blood pressure machine, ultrasound machine, centrifuge, medication, masks, sanitisers, doctor’s bed and a laptop – which has got the computer-based concussion testing on it – Baxter’s room is fully stocked to handle the challenges that come within the bubble.
“Making sure that you are properly equipped to handle everything is specifically important,” says Baxter. “The other thing is that we are playing a game every third day and normally we would play once a week, sometimes twice a week tops. But now we have this pressure of playing every third day and as the weeks are going on the guys are getting tired so it is trying to stay on top of things so that the little niggles don’t become major injuries.”
Life in lockdown went some way in preparing those heading into the bio-bubble for what was to follow. While the country rejoiced in the announcement of going to alert level two of the lockdown, that was met with muted celebrations in the bubble. At least we aren’t affected by loadshedding, but combating boredom and missing one’s family are but some of the other challenges faced by those in the BSE.
“Personally, being away from family in a hotel has had a big impact,” says Baxter on the personal challenges he’s faced. “Everyone thinks that staying in a hotel is glamorous but you get over it after a day or two. It isn’t home.”
Akin to boarding school
Wits’ physiotherapist Nicholas Brink doubled as the club’s compliance officer during the stay. Every morning before breakfast, each member of the team has their temperature recorded, while he and Baxter team up in asking each member of the squad if they have experienced any of the symptoms synonymous with Covid-19.
“With the commencement of the league we have been forced into a very confined environment. You are under scrutiny all the time. As the medical department and compliance officers it is important that we ensure everyone follows the protocols that have been set out. If we don’t adhere to these rules it has been made clear to us that the integrity of the league could be compromised,” says Brink.
“Life in the bubble involves micromanaging every aspect of the players’ lives. We control where the players sleep, when they eat, what they eat, where they train, how they train – that is a very complex task because that is something no one here is used to. It is akin to being in a boarding school.
“The players understand the seriousness of the situation and are following the routines that we have set out that include regular screening. The players understand the consequences, knowing that if everyone isn’t transparent about their actions and wellbeing it compromises the entire bio-safe environment created through life in the bubble.”
Similarly, Brink has set up his own office at the hotel, equipped with a rehabilitation centre similar to those at the club’s training facilities in Sturrock Park. “Here we have created our own little environment which consists of a treatment room and a small area where players can participate in rehabilitation or injury management.”
It is no different for team manager Roy Limongelli whose room is fully equipped with a printer and scanner while kit manager Jack Ndlovu faces the constant challenge of making sure the 20-strong matchday squad has two full sets of kit including two match jerseys at their disposal so as to adhere to PSL protocols.
Moreover, two designated ball boys have to be supplied from within each team’s camp. The Wits academy graduates have rotated in filling the quota and were part of a select few who watched fellow teammate Rowan Human score his first professional goal at the age of 19, with only 100 people allowed within the stadium “bowl” per match.
In speaking to Ajax Cape Town midfielder Rodrick Kabwe (the Urban Warriors along with Baroka FC and Richards Bay FC stay in the same hotel) on one of my routine trips to the Wits dining hall where we are treated to three meals a day, it opened my eyes to just how attached to our own life we tend to get. The Zambian hasn’t seen his wife and twins, who were born in 2018, for six months and the uncertainty of when he will see them again was evident in his voice. If anything, the bubble has taught me to appreciate the small things as, before you know it, everything you are accustomed to can vanish in front of your eyes like a bubble bursting in the air.
AB Basson is a journalist at Backpage Media and is part of Wits’ media department.