Soccer-Nicaraguan footballers playing on but players fear virus

MANAGUA, April 4 (Reuters) - Football in Nicaragua is enjoying a surge in popularity as one of the few national leagues where games are still ongoing but players in action there are concerned about the spread of the new coronavirus and say fear has changed the way they play.

“We try to avoid touching other players,” Carlos Mosquera, goalkeeper with Deportivo Las Sabanas, told Reuters. “Football has changed, because you don’t go in for a 50-50 ball with the same intensity.”

“The fear of what is happening in the world is always present. Mentally, you’re not focused on the game, you are always thinking that opponents may have the disease.”

The Primera Liga de Nicaragua is one of only four leagues believed to have survived the coronavirus lockdown, along with those in Belarus, Burundi and Tajikistan.

Games in the Central American nation are being played behind closed doors but are being broadcast locally on television or live on Facebook.

The refusal to shut down has drawn global attention to football in a nation that has long preferred baseball, a sport that is also resisting a lockdown in Nicaragua.

The secretary general of the Nicaraguan Football Federation, Jose Maria Bermudez, said fans from around the world are now tuning in to watch games and bet on them.

“We can tell from monitoring these things that more people are paying attention, particularly on betting sites,” Bermudez said in a phone interview.

“It has no effect on us financially - people win or lose money, we don’t get more money - but we can see that people are following us because we are one of the few countries where football is still going on.”

Bermudez also said with live sport almost entirely absent from the world’s TV screens, at least one foreign company had been in touch with the local rights holder, state-run Canal 6, asking to broadcast Nicaraguan games live.

That could result in a windfall for the unheralded league.

Bermudez stressed that the 10-team league has not decided to complete their season, merely “to keep playing for as long as the situation permits.”

There are five regular season matches to play before the top four teams go into a semi-final and final round play-off expected to begin in late April.

He pointed out that Nicaragua has recorded only a handful of cases of the new coronavirus and no deaths so far.

“The situation here is almost normal, there are only four cases of coronavirus and three were imported,” Bermudez said. “We were given information by the health officials and we took a decision based on that. We are not the government, we run football.”

“If things get worse or out of control we will have to suspend the tournament to protect lives.”

The number of confirmed cases had risen to five by Friday.

Players said they were not consulted about the decision to keep playing, which was taken after a meeting between the league and club owners, many of whom get financial support from the government of Nicaragua’s authoritarian president Daniel Ortega.

Ortega has insisted Nicaragua is taking the most sensible approach to dealing with the pandemic. Critics say he wants to show the world that life in Nicaragua continues as normal.

Washington imposed sanctions on Nicaragua following a crackdown on opposition protests in 2018. Some members of the European Union have accused Ortega of jailing and torturing political prisoners and banning human rights groups and media outlets, something the government denies.

Some players lined up for games this week wearing masks and gloves.

Players at Deportivo Las Sabanas club told Reuters they needed to keep playing to support their families, and half-jokingly said the newfound interest in Nicaraguan football could help win them a transfer to a bigger club. (Reporting by Andrew Downie in London and Reuters journalists in Managua; Writing by Andrew Downie; Editing by Daniel Wallis)