Nigeria suspends football activities due to coronavirus

Nigerian football on Wednesday finally caught up to the majority of the rest of the world in calling a four-week halt to football activities due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement from the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), president Amaju Pinnick also advised all members of the football family to observe the various safety precautions and conduct advised by the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) -- such as hand-washing, the use of sanitizers and social distancing.

The decision comes after most of the rest of Africa had already shut down mass gatherings, including sporting events.

Kenya was first, restricting travel and placing an embargo on sporting events, and a slew of other countries followed, including Lesotho, Tunisia, Madagascar, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda, Botswana, South Sudan and South Africa.

South Africa declared "a national state of disaster" in announcing restrictions that took effect on Wednesday.

Nigeria's neighbour Ghana also imposed travel restrictions and banned mass gatherings, leading to a suspension of sporting activities, following an edict announced on Sunday by its president, Nana Akufo-Addo.

Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) matches continued with no restriction on attendance, and fans allowed access to games, until Wednesday, when matchday 25 fixtures were played just before the NFF announced that it was suspending football activities in the country for the next four weeks.

Pinnick said in the NFF statement that the shutdown would affect all on-field activities, including the NPFL and other leagues, the national teams, youth football programs and even street football. Pinnick said the situation would be reviewed in four weeks' time, in line with events and trends worldwide.

Pinnick also said that the NFF investigation committee would continue to look into the death of Chineme Martins, having commenced its work in Benin City on Tuesday. The committee would submit its report within 10 days, he said.

Earlier Wednesday, the NCDC had announced travel restrictions from countries with more than 1,000 reported cases of infection, including the United States and United Kingdom. At the same time, the NCDC also announced five new cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria, taking the number of confirmed cases to eight. All five cases had a travel history to the U.K. or U.S.

Outside of sports, Nigeria had been ahead of much of the rest of the world in its COVID-19 response protocols.

Nigeria had been implementing these protocols since early February, well before the first official case was reported, first with tests on international returnees from China and then all arrivals.

Passengers departing the country had to complete questionnaires about their travel history and health status, while international arrivals were subject to even more stringent checks: They were handed health forms with questions about recent travel from a high-risk country, health status, and traceable contact information in Nigeria, including addresses and phone numbers.

In addition, all arriving passengers had to undergo a temperature check similar to that which has been employed during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola virus.

High-risk returnees were also advised to self-quarantine.

Other countries took nearly a month to catch up with these protocols, by which time Nigeria had found and isolated its first official case, an Italian national.

The county's work was so good that World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised "the Government of Nigeria for the swift and transparent way you have shared the #COVID19 sequence from the country's first case."

"This a true act of solidarity and an important step in stopping the #coronavirus from spreading further," Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter.

As cases of infection continued to spike around the world, as the Confederation of African Football and Cameroon suspended the African Nations Championship tournament scheduled for April, and as the first Africa-to-Africa infection was reported -- a Burkina Faso national traveling within the continent -- it was inevitable that Nigeria would have to take drastic action.

Shehu Dikko, the League Management Company chairman who doubles as NFF vice president, told ESPN that NPFL organizers would follow the lead of the NCDC and the Ministry of Health.

That lead came on Wednesday afternoon, and Nigerian football will thus be in limbo for the next four weeks, at least.