'Very difficult decision': MSA explains why spectators won't be allowed at soccer games

The head of the Manitoba Soccer Association (MSA) said it was a “very difficult decision” to prohibit spectators from attending games and practices this season.

On Wednesday, the MSA announced updated guidelines for the sport under Manitoba’s health orders. While outdoor seasons can start as early as May 1, the MSA release said no spectators will be allowed at any indoor or outdoor youth (U9-U18) or senior (U18+) soccer activity.

Hector Vergara, MSA’s executive director, said the organization consulted with Dr. Jazz Atwal and representatives from Sport Manitoba prior to making the announcement. Vergara said the decision was made with the best interests of the players in mind.

“We realize this isn’t going to be a popular decision with everybody,” Vergara said on Thursday afternoon. “Some people may decide not to participate, and we understand that too.”

Vergara said they determined that MSA would allow competition to start as per health orders, but “as per the spirit of the orders,” not allow spectators to attend matches.

“We want soccer to take part, but obviously we have a social responsibility in our community to also ensure, as per the recommendations of Dr. Atwal, that we be restrictive as much as possible.”

The MSA release said referees will be instructed to only start games when there are no spectators in attendance. Coaches will be expected to cooperate with the referee if spectators need to be asked to leave.

The Manitoba Soccer Referees Association (MSRA) told CTV News it will follow MSA’s directions as received and added, “We must work together as a soccer community for the good of the game.”

“We’re just trying to do as best we can to ensure the majority of players have an opportunity to participate,” Vergara said.

Mini soccer players (U3-U8) may be joined at their game or practice by a parent, but MSA’s guidelines stipulate the parent must participate on the field.

Jada Hofer said her kids—Jonah, 4, and Nevaeh, 3—are “super excited” they’re playing soccer this summer. As the team’s manager, Hofer is allowed on the sidelines, but is disappointed other family members won’t be allowed to attend games.

“We have some aunties that were looking forward to coming and watching them in their first year,” Hofer said.

Robyn Canicula said there’s no way her seven-year-old son Nico will want to play if she isn’t allowed to be at his games.

“He needs a parent there—just for a little support,” Canicula said.

Canicula said guidelines like social distancing practices and mandatory mask use should be in place to allow at least one parent to spectate.

“If everybody just does their part, then parents can alternate and everybody gets a chance to see their kid play.”

Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said transmission at outdoor sporting events has been low, but there is still a risk with COVID-19 and the variants.

"Even from my own experience I can say, 'What do we do on the sidelines?' We cheer," said Carr. "Speaking loudly [provides] more opportunity for those virus particles to get into the air. We tend to talk to other parents. We move around and pace around without even realizing."

Vergara said MSA is hopeful they’ll be able to have spectators return to games as COVID-19 numbers drop in the province.

Earlier this week, a provincial spokesperson told CTV News that parents can come and watch an outdoor sporting activity if they maintain proper distancing and are in a group smaller than 10. However, the spokesperson noted organizations may have additional requirements or restrictions that also apply.