MANAGUA, Apr 4 (Reuters) – Soccer in Nicaragua is increasing in popularity as one of the few national leagues still active, but players are concerned about the spread of the coronavirus and say fear has changed the way that they play the matches.
The coronavirus has killed more than 60,000 people worldwide since it emerged in China last December.
“We try to avoid touching other players. Soccer has changed because you don’t fight for a ball with the same intensity,” Carlos Mosquera, goalkeeper for Deportivo Las Sabanas, told Reuters.
“Fear of what is happening in the world is always present. Mentally you are not focused on the game, you are always thinking that opponents may have the disease,” he added.
The Nicaraguan First League is one of only four believed to have survived the coronavirus blockade, along with those of Belarus, Burundi and Tajikistan.
Matches in the Central American nation are played behind closed doors, but are broadcast locally on television or live on Facebook.
The refusal to suspend games has drawn world attention to soccer in a nation that has long preferred baseball, a sport that also resists a blockade in Nicaragua.
The secretary general of the Nicaraguan Football Federation, José María Bermúdez, said that fans around the world are now tuning in to watch games and bet on them.
“We can see by monitoring these things that more people are paying attention, particularly at gambling sites,” Bermúdez said in a telephone interview.
Bermúdez emphasized that the 10-team league has not decided to complete its season, simply “continue playing as long as the situation allows.”
“If things get worse or are out of control, we will have to suspend the tournament to protect lives,” he said.
There are five games to play in the regular season before the top four teams enter a semifinal round and a final round is expected to begin in late April.
The footballers said they were not consulted about the decision to continue playing, which was made after a meeting between the league and club owners, many of whom obtain financial support from the authoritarian president of the Nicaraguan government, Daniel Ortega.
Some footballers came out to play this week wearing masks and gloves.
Players from the Las Sabanas club told Reuters they needed to keep playing to support their families, and jokingly said that the new interest in Nicaraguan soccer could help them win a transfer to a larger club.
(Report by Andrew Downie in London and Reuters journalists in Managua. Edited in Spanish by Carlos Calvo Pacheco in Mexico City.)