New normal for Lions in Thai League
Physical contact must be minimised, which means goal celebrations will have to be restrained
When Singapore international Irfan Fandi plays in the Thai League 1 clash against Port FC tomorrow, the BG Pathum United defender will be confronted by a different footballing landscape.
To ensure safety following the competition's resumption last week after the Covid-19 pandemic caused a six-month break, the Thai League has implemented several stringent measures.
In addition to observing social distancing between teams before and after matches, players are not allowed to shake hands or exchange jerseys.
Physical contact must be minimised, which means goal celebrations will have to be more restrained.
These new measures will almost certainly take some getting used to.
Irfan told The New Paper: "We are raring to go after months without competitive action, we are really pumped up, so naturally we will get excited when we score.
"Football is a very emotional sport, especially when you score a goal, so it's going to be very difficult to control.
"But we're going to have to try and do elbow bumps as we have in our friendlies."
Some clubs have also discouraged their players from spitting, but Irfan believes it could be very hard to control.
"In sport, where you're sweating and just need to get that saliva out of your mouth, it's very natural that you spit," said the 23-year-old centre-back.
"So when our team was initially briefed by our coaches, we laughed it off... But the coaches made it a point that we take it seriously during games."
Asked for his take on the issue, Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, felt that while spitting in football "is not criminal", it cannot be "medically endorsed".
He said that the spread of germs when players spit on the ground - which tends to be sticky - is quite low.
"But the biggest danger is if it's done within two metres of other players because of factors such as wind and aerosolisation," added Dr Leong.
Aerosolisation refers to the dispersion in air of a liquid in the form of a fine mist, especially to the respiratory passages.
But Dr Leong could also empathise with footballers' predicament, saying: "When we exercise, we dehydrate, our throats are parched.
DIFFICULT TO SWALLOW
"The saliva becomes difficult to swallow... and we have a physiological need to clear it.
"The solution is to drink water, which is not always possible (during matches), so the next best thing to do is spit it out."
"So footballers are chum (Hokkien for being in a plight), unless there is a spitting corner," added Dr Leong jokingly.
The Thai League also gets players and officials to undergo Covid-19 tests up to four times a season.
It was through pre-season screenings that one positive case - an Uzbek player with Buriram United - was detected last week, out of 1,115 players and officials tested in the top two tiers of Thai football.
This resulted in the postponement of four matches, including newly promoted Pathum's clash with Buriram.
The Thai League takes the situation very seriously, and is working hard to reduce all risks.
The league's deputy chief executive and director of club licensing, Benjamin Tan, told TNP: "Covid-19 is no laughing matter, and it is our responsibility to have such stringent measures in place.
"They are absolutely necessary in order for the league to operate under such unprecedented circumstances."
Besides other safe management measures such as temperature screenings and the mandatory wearing of masks, the Thai League has also limited fan turnout to only 25 per cent of a stadium's capacity, with supporters seated at least a metre apart during matches.
With the measures in place, Irfan, whose side are fourth in the 16-team league after four matches, is hopeful that the season will be completed successfully.
Also looking to reboot their campaigns this weekend are Samut Prakan City goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and Suphanburi midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin, with the Lions duo not featuring in their clubs' respective matchday squads last week.
Izwan, who signed for Samut Prakan only on Sept 5 after being released by fellow top-tier outfit Trat in June, said: "Of course, everyone is concerned (about the pandemic as the season restarts).
"But there are safety measures for us to follow so, hopefully, it would be OK.
"For now, I am concentrating on adapting to the new environment as soon as possible so that I can help my team achieve their targets."