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The top-flight in Spain, La Liga, ended in July 338 days after it started thanks to a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic but the effect on the mental health of the league’s African footballers country could last longer.
Spain is one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus and it has recorded more than 322,980 cases since the start of the pandemic.
There have been 28,576 deaths, according to the figures released on 11 August by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
Data from ECDC shows the rate of infection in Spain is rising rapidly again, particularly in the Madrid and Aragon regions, yet it was the three months that the coronavirus crisis forced La Liga suspension that has left an indelible mark.
“I follow the reports about the number of deaths on television and I feel pain,” Getafe’s Cameroon international defender Allan Nyom told BBC Sport Africa.
“I feel terribly bad when I see the rising number of lives lost because these are humans like us. There were fears and concerns of death during the lockdown.
“When you hear about the casualties it tells you that anyone can die and it could be the next man next to you.
“It’s not easy mentally and of course we were all scared. You know it could be you as well, so it’s scary.”
Nigeria international Ramon Azeez has been in Spanish football since 2011, starting off at Andalusia outfit Almeria CF and taking in a short spell with CD Lugo before moving to Granada in January 2019.
Azeez played for his country at at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and his form in La Liga was rewarded with an international recall in September after a five-year absence.
But in the country he calls a second home, ice rinks have been turned into morgues, and drive-through funerals have caused heartbreak for many families unable to say goodbye properly.
“It makes me sick hearing about the number of deaths and finding out about daily casualty in a particular city is also deeply saddening,” he said.
“I’ve followed news about the infections and death. I hope everything can come back to normal as soon as possible.
“It hurts to know that families have lost loved ones and some health workers too have sacrificed their own lives to end this pandemic.”
Compatriot Kenneth Omeruo’s career has taken him across seven clubs in Belgium, Netherlands, England and Turkey.
He was notably on the books of English side Chelsea for seven years, albeit without making any competitive appearance for the London side.
His first season as a permanent player away from Chelsea resulted in relegation with Leganes, yet that huge setback sits at a sharp contrast to the anguish he felt between March and June.
“At first we were told young people without underlying health conditions are likely to survive it, but we saw people in their 30’s and 40’s die, and it’s still scary,” Omeruo told BBC Sport Africa.
“Football takes the back seat. Fame and money isn’t everything. We are facing a virus tougher than anything mankind has ever faced.
“You have to live right with other people and show love, knowing that at the end of the day anything is possible in life, even an unexpected death.”
Money means nothing
Coronavirus has suddenly levelled the playing field and it is a fact not lost on these highly paid stars, who are used to being feted by the media and fans.
Vast salaries, fast cars and huge houses are the order of the day for Europe’s elite, but even that is not enough to make footballers feel untouchable.
“It’s a big shame to say that money cannot do anything to stop the virus. Because if money could buy any thing like they say, then it would put an end to this,” Azeez added.
“Football, money and fame are worthless where coronavirus is. It’s even humbled and grounded those with loads of money.”
For Nyom, 32, who has previously played for Watford and West Bromwich Albion in the English Premier League, the pandemic has further helped him come to terms with what is important in life.
“The lessons I’ve learned is to be free and value our freedom, to be outside, take a walk and enjoy nature. I also learned to be kind and to show more love,” he added.
“To be around your family and cherish every moment shared together. To have good health is also important. It shows how fickle life can be.
“In this moment money can’t stop nothing. You can see that all the money you have is nothing and to be healthy is all.
“It’s a good lesson for all, to have good health is the most important thing in this world.”
Omeruo explained that the reality of life is that the pandemic has given a new meaning to money.
“This is not about having a lot of money, even wealthy people with a lot of money have died due to this virus and money couldn’t save them,” he said.
Algeria’s 2019 Nations Cup winner Aissa Mandi has established himself with Real Betis since joining from French club Reims in 2016.
The 28-year-old defender believes people need to come together and take measures to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“The world is experiencing the same challenges,” he said.
“We need to follow medical instructions and together we can stop this epidemic. Let us show solidarity to all and stay safe with our loved ones.”
Yaw Yeboah captained Ghana at the Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations in 2019 and played on loan at Spanish lower-tier club Celta Vigo B from CD Numancia.
After being on lockdown for three months away from his West African country, he admitted that his quest is to stay alive after a period of self discovery.
“Staying alive is all that matters now. Unlike humans who see colours, coronavirus does not,” Yeboah revealed.
“It has put all talks of racism and other societal challenges on the back burner because everyone just wants to be alive.
“I survived the lockdown by being closer to my Christian faith, support those I could with whatever I had. It is all we can do because we are not going to take anything with us when we leave here.”
Panic calls from home
As the virus spreads and death toll rises in Europe, it is causing concern to their families in Africa.
The players said they have had to make important phone calls to reassure their families back home that they are doing fine in Spain, as it became the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you wake up and hear the number of deaths daily… it’s scary and crazy,” Yeboah added:
“Your family in Ghana are worried and scared for you because they hear about the rising figure in casualties where you are, so it’s normal for them to be concerned about your safety.
“The world has never experienced this Covid before. It’s a big lesson and a reminder of some of the things that we take for granted.”
Players also have to deal with the effect on their relatives’ mental health and anxiety about the virus.
That is a feeling Ikechukwu Uche, a veteran Nigerian international striker who has been in Spanish football since 2002 – knows all too well.
“I received scary phone calls on a daily basis concerning my safety from my family members and friends back home,” he told the BBC.
“They know that coronavirus has kept stadiums silent, and gates shut. I think they wonder how much impact that would have on me, but I also feel bad that my situation gives them so much anxiety.”
Azeez played every match for Nigeria as they finished runners-up to Switzerland at the 2009 Under-17 World Cup in Abuja where he was voted the third best player of the tournament.
And he captained the Under-20 side [the Flying Eagles] as they narrowly lost to France in the quarter-finals at the World Cup in Colombia two years later.
He believes this period has further changed his perception on life and how to help give moral and encouragement to others in these difficult times.
“Biggest lessons I have learned is to love and show compassion to others. Don’t look down on others because you think you have money and fame,” Azeez said.
“Also we need to learn the act of forgiveness because no one knows when death will come. This period has taught us that we are all here for now and could be gone in a matter of seconds.”
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