TOKYO — The referee blew his whistle, signaling a 1-0 victory for Japan over South Africa to cap the first night of men’s soccer group play inside an empty Tokyo Stadium on Thursday, roughly 24 hours before the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony.
A smattering of claps from the limited few in attendance – officials and volunteers, primarily – percolated, but the most important action continued on the pitch.
Japan players fist-bumped and high-fived their South African counterparts — players who have spent the last several days in isolation as two players and a staffer became the first cases inside the Olympic Village to test positive for COVID-19.
South Africa coach David Notoane certainly appreciated the gestures.
Takefusa Kubo of Team Japan is challenged by Goodman Mosele of Team South Aftrica during the Men’s First Round Group A match between Japan and South Africa during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 22, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.
“I think the reaction of the Japanese team was good toward the end,” he said. “We expected, perhaps, the worst. But I think the game was played in the spirit that we are also here for solidarity. We are here for united motion, as a people.”
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Not everyone has treated his squad with the same respect, Notoane said.
“The one thing I wanted to mention … the issue of stigmatization,” he said during his post-match news conference. “Because often, when people come across us, you see people running away. I think that’s disrespectful. COVID is something we live with in all of our lives outside of the tournament, so it’s very surprising.”
For the last five days, South Africa team members have spent the vast majority of their days confined to their rooms, leaving only for food. Everybody else connected to the team has tested negative since the first round of positives, a span of five days, Notoane said.
He was not lamenting the regulations set forth by Games organizers. “Rules are rules,” he said.
The attitude toward his squad could certainly be better, though.
“Treat us a little bit humanely, I think. When people start to run away from you when you approach them, they think there’s something wrong with us,” the coach added. “The truth of the matter is, there’s nothing wrong with us. As I said, we’ve tested for five days. We are negative. It could have happened to anyone.
“It’s very difficult, mentally, to be stuck inside your room.”
South Africa kept it a scoreless match until Takefusa Kubo scored for Japan on a classy strike to the back post in the 71st minute. Notoane commended his team’s efforts both mentally and physically, given the lack of conditioning this week.
“Even with the situation with the South African team, (we) were able to remain calm and steady. And (we) were able to make a win because of this, although there were some difficulties,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said.
Players Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi and video analyst Mario Mash tested positive Sunday. Friday’s match between Japan and China wasn’t even a guarantee to be played; organizers announced hours before it would take place as scheduled.
South Africa will next play France, which lost to Mexico 4-1, as Group A play continues Sunday. Japan will take on Mexico.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: South Africa Olympic coach upset as others stigmatize team over COVID