Centroamérica / Culture

Honduran Soccer against COVID-19

Friday, October 23, 2020
Allan Bu

(This article was originally published in Spanish in Contra Corriente.)

“Barney' cruised the streets around San Pedro’s stadiums trying to sell tickets to the National Soccer League games. He used to make his money scalping tickets, but, since March, his income from soccer games has dried up. Now he sells personal items on social media marketplaces. The league suspended all activities on March 16 and cancelled a major 2020 tournament scheduled for April 29. When professional soccer started back up again on September 26, the country had 74,548 coronavirus cases, and experts keep repeating that, without sufficient data — a problem in Honduras and throughout Central America — there is no way to know what the stage of the pandemic Honduras is in right now. 

The National Soccer League resumed play under an extensive and meticulous biosafety protocol, which includes 11 general measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A 45-page document details everything from PCR and rapid tests for players and field staff, to the number of people allowed on the bus to the stadium.

The protocol for training and practice sessions requires temperature checks and a brief interview of all participants. Teams must install hand and feet washing stations, and disinfectant gel applicators.  Except for players and referees on the field of play, the use of face masks is mandatory at all times. The players and referees are also required to shower immediately after the game, but this is impossible in stadiums like Tocoa that don’t have potable water. The protocol also provides healthy diet guidelines for players that include supplements to strengthen the immune system. Hugs to celebrate goals are prohibited, and even though players are constantly bumping into each other during the game, they must maintain social distancing during the coach's talks and the pre-game prayer.

These rigorous measures and an empty stadium have killed Barney’s ticket-scalping business. “It’s hit all of us independent vendors hard. We’ve been able to earn this income from game tickets for years, mostly from the Real España and Marathon games.” Barney, whose short stature gave him his nickname, had to change the types of products he sells. “We have to figure out how to survive. God won’t abandon us, he always provides. But it's very difficult.”

Barney says that he’s lost at least 40 percent of his income during the pandemic, but has been able to sell some tickets for concerts and other events. He knows people who only earn money from their work at the stadium, like selling grilled meat and gum. “They must be in debt by now. That’s the way it is in this country. Some of us scratch out a living while the corrupt get even richer,” he says. 

Jonathan Amaya, who works with the Marathon Sports Club, says that there are eight food stalls that employ four people each in the Yankel Rosenthal Stadium alone. “Selling stuff at the stadiums is the only work some people have. It’s very tough for them, going so many months without earning any money,” he says.

Demanding Equal Treatment

Three or four days before the Olimpia Sports Club, the country’s most popular team, began playing games, Melbin Cerbellon, leader of Olimpia’s Ultrafiel fan club, was already planning how the fan club would support its team in the stadium. “Usually we do things to support Olimpia during the week before the game, but we can’t do that anymore,” he says. 

He says that during the fourth round of the Clausura Tournament, they wanted to cheer on Olimpia against archrival Motagua, like the Real España fans did outside Rosenthal Stadium when their team lost 3-0 to Marathon on October 14. The leaders of the Olimpia Ultrafiel and the Motagua Revolucionarios fan clubs met with the National Police to discuss , only to be told to stay away from the stadium. 

“We had planned to hang our banners in the stadium even though we couldn't go in, and stay outside to cheer on the team, but now emergency management officials from SINAGER and the Stadium Risk Prevention Commission told us to be careful because we could be committing a crime,” said Cerbellón. The Olimpia vs. Motagua game ended in a lackluster 0-0 tie without the energizing cheers of fans in the stadium. 

There has been a ban on mass gatherings since the state of emergency was declared in March, but Cerbellón says that “what SINAGER told us is a joke” because campaigning politicians such as Mauricio Oliva and Nasry Asfura of the National Party, and Libre Party candidate, Xiomara Castro, are given permission to hold large rallies with supporters.

On September 14, the government’s Directorate of Security issued a statement prohibiting fans from gathering outside the stadiums. Anyone found there would have to show that their ID card number matched the day they were allowed to be out on the streets, according to the official lockdown schedule. “The authorities are afraid that soccer fans are going to spread the virus. This is a crazy country, but whatever, what are we going to do?” said Cerbellón.

The fan club has assisted the community by distributing food and water, and has even repaired some roofs to help out during the pandemic. “Some relatives of fan club members have tested positive, but not because of anything we’ve done. The disease is all around us,” he says. All he asks is that they “be treated equally and given the general screening because the laws are supposed to apply to everyone.”  

Cerbellón also thinks that people should be allowed back into the stadiums because attendance never exceeds 40% capacity in Honduras, unless it’s the final stage of a tournament. He’s  heard that some people are already attending games in the current round of competition. 

The Revolucionarios fan club of the Motagua team issued a statement asserting their desire to support their team after such a long time, but also recognized that the danger has not passed. “Let's remember that the pandemic is not over. The virus is everywhere and we’re always at risk of infection. We must comply with the measures imposed by the authorities,” said the statement, also urging fans to protect their families, players, and health professionals “who go out every day to save the lives of people with the coronavirus.” They allege that other fan clubs have gone out and 'behaved irresponsibly by not complying with biosafety measures, and not caring whether they get infected and spread the virus at home. The statement said that 'our fan club will not hold large gatherings around the stadium or anywhere else. We will wait for better times when we can cheer on our team together.”

Beating COVID-19

Soccer player Luis “Güicho” Guzmán will turn 41 in December. He has played for eight National League teams in Honduras and is a COVID-19 survivor. His bout with the coronavirus was the most widely reported case among Honduran sports figures. 

In an interview with Contracorriente, Güicho said “I thank God that He is always in control.” Known for his deep faith, he said “This experience was very difficult. I’m very healthy and have never been as sick as that. The doctors said that my lung capacity dropped to 50% at times. Sometimes I felt really terrible, but I never thought I was going to die. I won't deny that I was afraid.'  

The soccer player was sick at home for 15 days before being admitted to the Thorax Hospital in Tegucigalpa. At that time, all the treatment centers in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa were completely full of sick people. “One day, I almost died in my mother’s arms. I couldn’t even take three steps, and I was short of breath. I think I had the hardest time at home... I was on oxygen for five days,” he recalls. 

Guzman says that while he was in his hospital bed, he led four people “to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. If that was my purpose [of getting sick], then I would do it again,” he says. At age 40, he still thinks about remaining active in the League. Admitted to the hospital on July 18, he stayed for 12 days until he tested negative on August 7. 

The Soccer Clubs

The talk in the training sessions and meetings of the soccer clubs isn’t all about strategy and how to crush the “enemy” anymore. People now have to think about face masks, disinfectant gel and social distancing. Journalists are no longer allowed at practices, and only photographers can attend matches. Real España, a team based in San Pedro Sula, conducts PCR tests every 15 days, the requirement for every team.. 

Players, coaches and administrative staff are subjected to a rigorous protocol the moment they arrive at the Real España headquarters. Feet must be sanitized, gel applied, and temperatures taken. You can’t take off your mask unless you’re a player. Before the pandemic, all players stayed at the headquarters facility the night before a game. Now, everyone gets to the stadium on their own. 

While at the hotels, masks can only be removed to eat. Only 15 people are allowed on the smaller buses, and 30 on the larger ones. During the games, you can hear everything that’s said on the field. “It feels weird, like you’re at a training session. You expect a lot of noise at games,” says Julio Aguilera, from Real España’s public relations department. 

The Economics of Soccer during a Pandemic 

Although the Honduran National Soccer League is a professional league, many of its teams are borderline amateurs. Except for Olimpia and Motagua, many teams are always operating in the red. Now, COVID-19 has presented a new financial challenge for the teams. Before the start of this tournament, six teams began a “strike” to demand support from the Soccer Federation and the government.

In a meeting with President Juan Orlando Hernández, the teams asked to be provided with biosafety supplies, and the government approved the request. According to the Más newspaper, the president gave each team 450,000 lempiras (less than 19,000 dollars) for health-related expenses, far short of the estimated 1,150,000 lempiras (about 47,000 dollars) needed by each team. 

The clubs received a modest contribution from the global FIFA soccer federation, a billion-dollar organization that gave $3 million lempiras to each member federation. It is not known how much money went to the Honduran National Soccer League. In addition, eight teams from the league obtained a loan from the Honduran Production and Housing Bank (BANHPROVI), claiming that they didn’t have the money needed to start the tournament. In a meeting with all the soccer team presidents, the government committed to securing a low-interest loan for this.

If team income from ticket sales was small before the pandemic, now it’s non-existent. Sponsorships still provide some income, but companies don’t want to spend on advertising during a pandemic. Motagua lost two sponsors at the beginning of the health crisis, and those that stayed have reduced their spending. 

Despite the complex economic and health circumstances brought on by the pandemic, soccer has returned to Honduras. Four rounds of the Apertura 2020 tournament have been played so far, and Honduran soccer is determined to beat COVID-19. 

He lost 16 pounds during his illness and sometimes still feels pain in his chest, back, and legs. But he received no help from the National Soccer League while he was ill, nor from his current team, Real de Minas. Gerardo Martinez, the president of Real de Minas, only called once asking about his health. Other soccer figures like Raul Caceres and Hector Zelaya, Motagua’s manager, reached out to him about his progress, said Guzman. 

Guzmán will not continue playing for the lowly Real de Minas team. After playing 18 months for them, he is still owed six weeks of salary. This is common in the National Soccer League, which has at least six teams that are behind on their payrolls. “I hope they do pay me what they owe me. I spent a year-and-a-half putting my body on the line for them,” he says indignantly. 

Guicho is an optimistic man even though, as of October 15, there were 85,458 confirmed cases and 2,533 deaths in Honduras due to COVID-19. 'I think that nobody is the same as they were before the pandemic. God has allowed all this to happen.”

*Translated by John Turnure

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