Football restarts in virus-hit South Africa with Celtic victory

Football resumed in South Africa on Saturday after a 145-day coronavirus-induced shutdown with Bloemfontein Celtic reaching the Nedbank Cup final behind closed doors.

The semi-final at Orlando Stadium in Soweto saw Celtic score in first-half stoppage time after Baroka had a man sent off, and twice more during the second half for a 3-0 win.

After Namibian Ananias Gebhardt was red-carded for a late, studs-up tackle, captain Ndumiso Mabena put Celtic ahead and substitute Sepana Letsoalo netted twice in the closing stages.

The teams walked separately on to the pitch, which resembled a dustbowl in parts after several months without rain, then stood still and clapped to honour coronavirus victims.

But unlike footballers in the major European leagues, they did not take a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that seeks racial equality.

Social distancing was observed after goals with hugging and high fives replaced by fist pumps and dance routines.

Mid-table league club Celtic will face Mamelodi Sundowns or Bidvest Wits, both of whom are eyeing a league and cup double, in the September 8 final.

Celtic, seeking a first triumph since 1985 in the South African equivalent of the English FA Cup, reached the penultimate stage this season on March 15.

It was the last match staged in the most industrialised African country before a temporary national lockdown was introduced to try and limit the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Disagreements between the South African Football Association (Safa) and its special member, the Premier Soccer League (PSL), delayed the restart from mid-July to August 8.

- Referees a bone of contention -

The fitness of referees was a bone of contention with the PSL insisting the match officials were ready to resume last month and Safa believing otherwise.

All 57 matches -- 54 in the league and three in the cup -- will be staged at eight neutral venues in the Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Gauteng is the epicentre of the coronavirus in South Africa, where more than half the one million-plus COVID-19 infections in the continent have occurred.

But Safa medical officer Thulani Ngwenya said FIFA considered the plan to restart football in South Africa "one of the best it received.

"Provided everyone involved meticulously follows the health protocols, there is only a one percent chance of any infections," Ngwenya predicted.

Players, coaches and officials will leave their hotels only to train and play and sports minister Nathi Mthethwa has warned that if rules are not obeyed, football will be halted.

"It is not a fait accompli that players just get on to the field and perform -- they will play based on plans submitted to the department of health," stressed the minister.

"We reserve the right to halt any activity if we feel the protocols and plans are not being adhered to."

The Absa Premiership -- the richest league in Africa -- resumes Tuesday with a blockbuster fixture between two title challengers, Sundowns and Orlando Pirates.

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