So football is back. Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings opened the coronavirus-delayed K-League season in an empty stadium in the south-west city of Jeonju on Friday evening and for legions of online fans around the world, starved of football by the pandemic, the exertions were a sporting balm. It is fair to say that no football match played on South Korean soil had attracted this level of international interest since the 2002 World Cup finals.
With the exceptions of Belarus, Burundi, Tajikistan and Nicaragua, the global game has been at a virtual standstill, presenting the K-League with an opportunity to fill the hole left by the postponement or cancellation of all other major competitions.
Top-flight South Korean football was supposed to have started on 29 February, the day the country reported 909 Covid-19 cases – a record daily high. Just over two months on the country appears to have contained the virus, but fears of a second wave turned this into a football match like no other.
Theplayers’ temperatures were checked and the teams ran on to the pitch separately while masked coaching staff and substitutes took their seats in the dugouts as journalists dotted the press tribune. Seats in empty stands had been repainted to display the message “Stay strong”, along with a promise to fans to #C_U_SOON.
No supporters were allowed inside the 42,000-seat stadium and players were told to observe coronavirus protocols as well as the laws of the game. Excessive goal celebrations were banned, and too much talking at close quarters, whether to teammates or the referee, would result in sanctions for repeat offenders. Players had been told to replace the pre-match handshake with a bow of the head executed from a sensible distance.
If any of the players broke the rules on the gratuitous discharge of bodily fluids, they did so discreetly. In fact, to this viewer’s eye, it might well have been the first spit- and snot-free match in football history.
It was a sterile atmosphere in the first half, with the players’ shouts echoing in the empty arena. But with Jeonbuk chasing a winner in the second half, artificial crowd noise was pumped through the PA system, which did at least give some semblance of atmosphere.
Jeonbuk, last year’s champions who are chasing a record eighth title, won the game with minutes rremaining when the 41-year-old Lee Dong-gook headed in the only goal from a corner.
With both sides having gamely observed the virus protocols, Lee and his teammates then passed the night’s toughest test of physical-distancing discipline, settling for celebratory exchanges of fist bumps rather than embraces.
“I think it is the first time in my career I’ve played without fans and it was a little strange,” said Lee, who thanked health workers around the world for battling coronavirus. “It was important that we got the win and we worked hard to get it. I think I’ve reminded international fans that I’m still around.”
Simon Hill, the veteran commentator, had promised online viewers a “feast” to end the “famine”, but the match probably did not quicken the pulses of overseas neutrals who filled the K-League’s official YouTube account with comments in Japanese, English, Arabic, French and Spanish.
In fairness, it should have come as no surprise that the players, denied conventional preparations for the season opener, lacked sharpness on a sticky evening at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium.
But at least they all knew they were virus-free. The 1,100 K-League players and staff have tested negative, but any new infections during the season, shortened from 38 to 27 rounds, will require the affected club and their opponents to sit out competition for two weeks.
“About a week ago we decided to get everyone, players and coaching staff, tested for the coronavirus so that there will be little or no risk of infection, even if there’s contact,” Lee Jong-kwoun, the K-League’s head of communications, said on the eve of a match, which will be followed by five more over the weekend.
This could prove to be a memorable season for Asia’s oldest professional league. With all other major football leagues inactive, broadcasters from at least 17 countries have obtained rights for this season’s K-League, with live feeds available in countries as distant as Germany, India and Australia.
“There had been some interest in the K-League before but the number has surged after the announcement that it was starting,” said the K-League president Kwon Oh-gap. “We have completed contracts with a number of countries and are negotiating with other broadcasters.”
A match played amid a global pandemic was never going to be football as we know it. But it was a version of the game that, for the time being, we are going to have to live with. As Hill said in his sign-off: “Isn’t it great just to have some football again?”