Photo/Illutration Staff at MM1, a company in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, work on the South African soccer team’s jerseys on July 22. (Provided by MM1)

SAYAMA, Saitama Prefecture--In the soccer scorecard for South Africa's opening Olympics match against Japan, a company called MM1 based here deserved a timely assist.

Without the help of the uniform and jersey manufacturer, the South African players would have been left without their names or numbers on their backs.

The South African team's road in the Olympics started in chaos, as two players and a team staffer tested positive for the novel coronavirus only a few days before their first game, which was held on July 22 in Tokyo.

Eighteen members were deemed to have been in close contact. Due to the forced isolation, the team could not practice and prepare properly to deal with the scorching heat and humidity.

Head coach David Notoane said before the game that he was concerned more about the players’ health than the match.

Typically in Japan, those who are deemed to have been in close contact are required to isolate for 14 days.

But the Tokyo 2020 organizers made a special case for athletes and will allow them to compete if they test negative six hours before an event.

The South African soccer players cleared their tests and ran out onto the pitch at Tokyo Stadium in Chofu.

But the team was facing another crisis and was uncertain if it could play until the last minute.

Because the team was preoccupied with responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, it could not prepare the jerseys with the players’ names and numbers being added.

MM1, based in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, received an urgent phone call at around 6 a.m. on game day.

“Can you help us with our jerseys?” asked the caller, who was related to the soccer team. 

The company had worked for the Springboks, the renowned South African rugby team, at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

The soccer team relied on the connection and contacted the company.

MM1, in fact, had received a call from the team the night before. But after the conversation, the team concluded that it would solve the problem on its own.

But Mayumi Takahashi, 56, an MM1 managing director, said she thought the team would call back and place the order.

So she was mentally prepared, she said.

The company received the uniforms before noon on game day.

But the MM1 staff discovered the color of the jersey number was different from the sample.

The kickoff time was 8 p.m.

Company staff carefully selected colors that would match the team’s colors and added the players’ names and number on the jerseys by a heat press machine.

The process usually takes two days at least. To meet the emergency order, the company called in employees who was supposed to have the day off.

“If we did shoddy work to finish the order on time but the numbers came off during the game, the whole world would be watching,” Takahashi said. “We were rushed, but we made sure to do all of our work properly.”

The team needed two jerseys for each player. But they would not be ready in time for the kickoff, the company decided.

So MM1 completed a jersey for each player first and loaded 20-or-so of the shirts in a car that the team had standing ready at a little past 6 p.m.

The stadium was about 25 kilometers from the company.

The jerseys arrived onsite approximately 30 minutes before the players’ entrance procession onto the field.

The company employees paused their tasks and watched the players in their yellow and green jerseys online.

“We made it,” the staff said in delight.

Then they quickly returned to work to finish the second jerseys, which were delivered to the team shortly after the second half started.

In a close and hard-fought contest, South Africa lost to Japan, 1-0.

When South Africa plays against Mexico on July 28, well-wishers will be rooting for them at a company in Sayama.

“We cannot root for them from the stands,” Takahashi said. “But we are happy that we could give them behind-the-scenes support. I hope the players do their best to the end.”