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AFF Suzuki Cup will be a litmus test

It will play a big part in S'pore's goal of returning to pre-pandemic life: Experts

The Omicron variant has spooked many, borders have been tightened swiftly, and the easing of social measures has understandably been halted. But the Republic's resolve to return to pre-pandemic life is still the long-term goal.

To that end, observers say Singapore's hosting of the AFF Suzuki Cup, which kicks off on Sunday, can play a big part in helping the nation move forward.

Three years ago, at the last edition, more than 750,000 fans attended 26 games in 11 cities.

This time, with Singapore the sole host to minimise travelling for teams, total attendances will be far more modest.

Last week, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced that 10,000 fans would be allowed to catch matches at the 55,000-capacity National Stadium. The other venue is the 6,000-seater Bishan Stadium, which will welcome a maximum of 1,000 fans.

The scale of the 10-team tournament and the potential five-figure spectatorship - the largest in-person gathering here since the pandemic began - is a clear sign of Singapore's determination to live with Covid-19, said Deloitte South-east Asia sports business group leader James Walton.

"In sport, business and (entertainment) we are signalling to the world that while we will take precautions with different testing regimens and measures, we are... going in the right direction," he said.

Last week, pop star JJ Lin performed before 2,000 fans at the Sands Theatre under vaccination-differentiated safe management measures which allowed concert-goers to sit alongside one another without the need for social distancing.

Two weeks earlier, the Bloomberg New Economy Forum welcomed 300 international business and government leaders to Sentosa's Capella hotel, with strict testing requirements for delegates to allow for business networking.

Professor Paul Tambyah, deputy director of the infectious diseases translational research programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said the Suzuki Cup is "very significant" in Singapore's road to normalcy as it is "one step up" from the JJ Lin concert and Bloomberg forum.

"Now we will have a larger number of people outdoors and the safe conduct of this event will give the authorities more confidence to progressively open up now that we have reached a high vaccination rate, and (considering the fact) for 98 per cent of those found to be infected, the disease is mild," he said.

The FAS in September had lobbied hard to earn the Asean Football Federation's nod to host the tournament, which had been postponed a year, and Singapore's track record over the past year in hosting sports events proved key.

International athletes had featured in the Singapore Tennis Open in February and various mixed martial arts events by One Championship - spectators were also allowed in limited numbers - with no cases of infection arising from any of them.

Former national player R. Sasikumar noted that Singapore was one of the last Asean nations to resume its domestic league after the pandemic began, and the authorities have kept up the careful, cautious approach which has proved prudent.

Now running a sports marketing agency, he experienced the opposite approach in September in Spain on a work trip, and said he was struck by how unaffected people there seemed.

Spain was still reporting over 6,000 cases a day when he arrived but numbers dropped to just over 2,000 by the time he left to return to Singapore.

Said Sasi: "I was watching Champions League games in the Nou Camp with no mask, no social distancing, none of that stuff. No masks were required outdoors and in a sense, it was liberating.

"I guess in Europe they moved on fairly quickly... and when I came back and learnt we were going to host the Suzuki Cup, I saw it as a sign we were going to as well."

Dr Alex Cook, associate professor and vice-dean (research) from NUS' Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, noted that Europe's approach led to thousands of additional cases arising from Euro 2020 - held in June and July across 11 cities.

"But... we (won't) see spectacles like the (67,000-seater) Puskas Arena full to the brim with mask-less spectators, at Kallang or Bishan," said Dr Cook.

"There will be safe management measures in place and restrictions on total numbers, so I personally would feel very comfortable attending."

The participants - up to 400 players, coaches and officials will converge for the Suzuki Cup - will also be managed carefully.

All teams, including Singapore, will be placed in a bubble, with movements restricted to hotels and training and competition venues.


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