They may very well be the first in the world, too. As far as Stalder can tell, of all the leagues that stopped play because of COVID-19, only a handful like South Korea’s K League and Germany’s Bundesliga are back in action – all behind closed doors. Even in New Zealand, local soccer doesn’t start until this weekend.
“I’ve Googled that myself, just to dig a little bit. I can’t see anything. As best we can make it out, that’s where we sit,” Stalder said.
The NT – which hasn’t had an active COVID-19 case since May 21 – will move into stage three of restrictions at midday on Friday, permitting crowds of up to 500 at sporting events. With community sport still in a holding pattern elsewhere, Stalder said Football NT saw a chance to get a jump on the rest of the country.
“This COVID thing has been the most extraordinary of times, and to cap it off we get this extraordinary opportunity to be first,” he said.
“For the Top End of Australia, this is something to gloat about, but it’s also something to be very humble about, because it’s taken a lot of work by government and health officials and more importantly, the populous of the NT.
“It was always very important for us that we contain the virus and make sure it doesn’t get into our many Indigenous communities – that’s our point of difference, our identity.”
Fittingly, it will be the NT Yapas – an all-Indigenous women’s soccer team – who will kick things off against Hellenic AC.
“It means a lot to us,” said Imogene Briston of the Yapas. “We’ve got these brand new strips that have been specially designed for us … to put them on we feel an immense amount of pride, with all the Indigenous issues going on at the moment.”
Then it’s over to the men, with Hellenic – who came close to springing an enormous upset over Western Sydney Wanderers in the FFA Cup two years ago – taking on the Mindil Aces.
“We’re putting ourselves on the footballing map,” said Hellenic striker Simon Bell, a 35-year-old English import who works as a limo driver, tradie and DJ. “The standard up here, considering the population, is pretty damn good.”
Both games will be streamed online through Football Federation Australia’s Facebook, YouTube and Twitter channels, potentially opening up Darwin soccer to a worldwide audience.
The trade-off is that none of the teams will have had any contact training before the match – that’s still banned until midday Friday.
Not that anyone really cares.
“It was a leap – we went and talked to them about it and said, ‘this is a great opportunity, if we wait a couple more weeks until you’re ready, we’ll miss this.’ So they were like, ‘yeah, let’s go for it,'” Stalder said.
“I was out with them last night [at training] and they are just so toey to get into it. I would hate to be in the first tackle.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.