Covid-19 pandemic spells doom for injured KPL stars

Monday, June 8th, 2020 00:00 |
Gor Mahia’s Philemon Otieno heads the ball past Sadio Mane during Kenya’s group match against Senegal at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt. Photo/PD/DAVID NDOLO

When it rains, it pours.

So it seems for a number of Kenyan Premier League (KPL) players who were nursing long-term injuries before coronavirus struck.

In Kenya, close to 80 per cent, if not more, of the clubs are struggling financially and it is not uncommon for players to go for up to seven months without pay.

It means a large number of KPL squads  were already running on empty before Covid-19 trooped in town on March 13 and for the injured lot, the situation went from bad to worse.

Shafik Batambuze, who plays for KPL champions Gor Mahia was looking forward to returning to action this month  after suffering a career-threatening knee ligament injury last August.

The Ugandan full-back had to wait for three months before he underwent surgery after his club said it did not have money to cater for his medical costs.

Gor, like many other Kenyan clubs, do not have a medical insurance which means when a player gets injured, he is on his own most of the time.

Fearing for his career, Batambuze had to solicit for help from family and friends and it was not until November that he raised enough to undergo surgery back home in Entebbe.

Expensive trips

Then the tough journey to recovery started. It involved countless visits to his physio, gym work and swimming before he started light training in February.

“I am getting better each day and I am confident by June, I would have recovered fully.

I go back to the gym under a personal instructor and also went for swimming sessions until the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible,” Batambuze told this publication in April.

Dr Patrick Ngusale attends to Ray Omondi of AFC Leopards at his clinic in Nairobi on Friday. Photo/PD/PHILIP KAMAKYA

However, close to two months since, Batambuze’s recovery has stalled if not regressed.

For a player who was given seven months after surgery to fully recover, it now appears like he will have to deal with and extended period on the sidelines, all thanks to coronavirus.

“I last revisited my physiotherapist in April then the country went into a total lockdown and it became impossible,” Batambuze told this writer through a phone interview last week from his hometown of Jinja, southern Uganda where he has been since his surgery.

Batambuze’s physio is based in the capital Kampala, some 82km from Jinja and since the lockdown, it became difficult to make the trips.

“Yes hospitals are listed as essential service providers but the challenge is I cannot get public transport since the lockdown.

The only way I can get there is through a taxi which costs Ush246,000 (Sh7,000) then I need another Ush175,731 (Sh5,000) for consultation and physio sessions.

This is too expensive for me given my club has not paid us for six months,” added the former Tusker FC player.

That means, for two months, the player has missed things like ultrasound, scans and drills with his physio which are key in his recovery.

For now, Batambuze depends on a home-based programme drawn up by his physio to keep in shape.

It involves light runs, physical exercises to strengthen muscles and the injured leg plus kicking the ball in small groups of not more than seven.

But experts warm a home-based programme without visits to the doctor is a risky approach.

“If they do not go through the full programme, you delay full recovery and return to action.

This then erodes most gains that would have been made after surgery,” says Dr Patrick Ngusale, a Nairobi-based physiotherapist who has worked on the rehabilitation of a number of KPL players for close to a decade.

Sacrifices made

Before Covid-19 struck, Dr Ngusale was working on the recovery of three KPL players nursing long-term injuries.

The most notable one is Gor Maria utility man Philemon Otieno. Philemon just like Batambuze had to foot his own medical bills after his club and Football Kenya Federation haggled for weeks on who should pay after the player sustained a knee injury while turning out for national team Harambee Stars.

He had to wait for three months before family and teammates bailed him out.

“I connected him to a sports surgeon then I took over after the surgery,” Dr Ngusale says of Philemon’s case.

Alongside Philemon, Dr Ngusale is also working on the recovery of Jockins Atudo and Calvin Odongo, both of KPL side Posta Rangers who have also been out for months after suffering anterior cruciate ligament injuries.

The rehabilitation of the three was going on just fine until coronavirus struck, forcing the players and the doctor to make some sacrifices.

Health before profits

“I would have been close to a return if not for Covid-19 because I don’t train as I would have liked.

The other thing is that we go to see the doctor on certain days because we don’t have fare.

Our club has been having financial challenges so we cannot afford the physio sessions,” Atudo told People Sport last week.

Unlike Philemon who had to finance his entire medical bill, Atudo and Odongo are lucky that their employer Postal Corporation of Kenya has a medical cover which catered for their operation.

However, that is only limited to the surgery which means they have to pay for rehabilitation from their pockets.

This is difficult for players who have not seen a salary for months. The little they get, it’s a choice between the stomach and the injured leg. There’s is no guessing which one always wins.

It is for this reason that Dr Ngusale has had to make concessions, putting the players welfare ahead of profits.

“Instead of reducing sessions, I reduced the charges from Sh2,000 to Sh1,000 per visit. These are injuries that need nine months to heal and for the first three months after surgery, they come daily. When you charge Sh2,000 and they are financially struggling, it becomes tough,” admits Dr Ngusale.

He added: “These are young men with a future and if you compromise on sessions, you compromise on the results. Their rehabilitation is up to date because if it does not go right, it will be me to blame.”

For the three players Dr Ngusale is treating, Kenya Footballers Welfare Association (KEFWA) has shown a willingness to help and there is hope that the two parties will reach an agreement on modalities of payments soon.

But others in Kenya have not been as lucky. Before Covid-19, Mathare United defender Harun Pamba was one month away from returning to action after suffering a knee ligament injury six months earlier.

Pamba had been under rehabilitation at Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in Komarock, Nairobi before gyms were closed to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

Injured at home

That meant the player had to rely on a home-based programme to continue his recovery.

“Finances is a big problem for the players. The club is struggling financially and unable to pay them. Since our only facility is closed, they cannot go elsewhere for treatment as they can’t afford it and don’t even have fare,” the club doctor Wyclef Oduo told People Sport at the weekend.

“When they get some little money, they prefer to buy food than seek treatment and that is why they are forced to train at home which is not enough,” added Oduo.

For Pamba, training at home has not just been enough but instead come at great cost as he recently slid and injured the very knee he was trying to heal.

So while their peers with similar problems in Europe have used the coronavirus break to accelerate their recovery, for those in the Kenyan league, the pandemic has slowed, if not stalled theirs.

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