'Game of our lives': African footballers in coronavirus-hit Italy

Players from Ghana and Nigeria reach for calm as they say outbreak disrupted the season, brought life to a standstill.

Emmanuel Agyemang Badu and Simeon “Simy” Nwankwo are remarkably calm. The two professional football players from Ghana and Nigeria are laying low, self-quarantining and reassuring their families back home that they are doing fine in Italy, the current epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic.

When the Italian government decided to take emergency measures to try to stop the spread of the virus, crowded sporting events were among the first to go, hitting Italy’s football season hard. All sport is now suspended until at least April 3, including the top two tiers of Italian football – Series A and B. 


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Badu, 29, has been in Italy since 2010 and plays in the top flight for Hellas Verona on loan from Udinese, while Nwankwo, 27, who represented Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, joined second-tier side Crotone as a striker in the summer of 2016.  


Italy entered a country-wide lockdown last week, with police patrolling the streets to ensure people stayed indoors – the most restrictive measures since World War II. People are only allowed to move around for work, health needs or emergencies. 

The death toll from coronavirus rose throughout the month as Italy became the worst-hit country after China, where the virus was first detected late last year.

“The situation is a tough one, a very scary one. Now we’ve been home for the past six days without going out. So it’s really really tough,” Badu, who has scored 11 goals in 192 league appearances in Italy, told Al Jazeera.

“Trainings have been suspended. Unfortunately, we played Sampdoria [Serie A rivals] last week away in Genoa, and some of their players have tested positive for the coronavirus. So as a club we’ve been quarantined for 14 days.

“We only talk on our WhatsApp platform. When you start hearing of the casualties and number of deaths, you are human, so automatically you start feeling weird. Scared sometimes, because life is precious.”

Italy’s reported 1,266 deaths and 17,660 infections send shivers down the spine of many players. 

“At the moment, we have a couple of players who have tested positive … we are always in contact through the WhatsApp group … we practically spend our whole day talking about the situation … People are dying … losing family members,” says Simy, the leading goal scorer for second-placed Crotone this season with 13 league goals.

Reconnecting with family

“You need to constantly reassure your family and friends back home of your safety, and that you are OK and your immediate family is fine,” Simy says. 

“I can understand the panic, and we also feel the same way. But we have to keep praying … We all have to unite because it’s a global problem … I believe we will come out of it very soon.”

Badu’s family, friends and loved ones in Ghana are also extremely worried about him but, he says: “This is the situation now … We just have to take the precautions very serious and stay out of troubles.

“With this lockdown, you get a little time to reflect on certain aspect of life. You begin to appreciate life more.

“Some people were with us at the start of the year, but they are no longer here because of this. We need to pray for the families of those not here and continue to wish those infected a speedy recovery. Our faith and survival instinct will be tested. But we can never give up or relent; I believe mankind will win this battle.”

Simy has found a silver lining to the lockdown: “This football life is fast. Training, flying out to matches. Because it is your career, being on the road, you miss out on some important aspect of life, which is spending enough time with your family.

“I have extra time for my wife and daughter now because we practically do everything together. It helps that we take advantage of this moment together.” 

There are more important things than football 

“It’s been a big hit on the football world because everything is on a standstill now,” admits Simy.

“I think it’s only fair … There are things much more important than football. This is like the biggest game to play, the game of our lives. We need to join hands together and play it.

“The medical officials have done a terrific job so far, and I have to praise them … The government is doing a great job as well … football can only take the back seat because it is not bigger than life.” 

Badu adds: “As a fan, it helps to travel for games to back your team … Football brings people together and stadiums allow people to hug and share in the immense passion provided by the beautiful game. But life is so precious, we can’t just risk our lives for it now … We have to lose something small by not playing, rather than risk lives for it.”

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