Lisbon — The 13 reported cases of Covid-19 at the Portuguese football club Belenenses, whose league match against Benfica was called off at the weekend when their team was reduced to just six players, appear to be the Omicron variant, Portugal's national health institute (INSA) announced Monday.
If confirmed, the cases would be the first in Portugal of the new coronavirus strain.
"Preliminary tests carried out by INSA strongly suggest that all 13 cases associated to Belenenses players are linked to the Omicron variant of concern," the institute said in a statement.
INSA added that Bafana Bafana defender Thibang Phete, one of Belenenses players, had recently travelled in South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified.
Dozens of nations from Europe to Asia have suspended travel from South Africa and its neighbours since South African scientists flagged Omicron on November 25.
The World Health Organisation has labelled Omicron a variant of concern, saying it poses a "very high" risk globally, while scientists are still assessing its virulence.
Portuguese league officials met on Sunday to discuss the farcical game between Belenenses and Benfica, which had to be called off in the second half after Belenenses started with only nine players, including two goalkeepers, due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Belenenses played one of their goalkeepers, Joao Monteiro, as an outfield player and had no substitutes at the Estadio Nacional where Benfica strolled into a 7-0 lead before half-time on Saturday.
The Primeira Liga game was called off by referee Manuel Mota three minutes into the second half, after Belenenses were reduced to six players. They had emerged after half-time with only seven players before Monteiro went down injured.
Belenenses president Rui Pedro Soares said that Phete tested positive for Covid-19 upon returning to Portugal having been on international duty with Bafana Bafana.
Soares also criticised the league for making the game continue.
“We had eight players who could participate in the game and as such they told us that if we didn't attend the game it would be an unjustified absence. Playing here today was a shame for all of us,” said Soares.
Phete is one of two South African in the Belenenses squad. The other is midfielder Sphephelo Sithole.