Not talking or celebrating goals as South Korea restarts football affected by the virus
SEOUL: The South Korean soccer season begins on Friday after a two-month delay in the coronavirus, paving the way for the world game as other leagues struggle to get back into action.
Goal celebrations, handshakes and even conversations are under strict new security guidelines designed to prevent any contagion during games, which will be played behind closed doors.
While countries like Belarus, Turkmenistan and Taiwan defied the virus to continue playing soccer, South Korea, the co-hosts and semi-finalists of the 2002 World Cup, is the first prominent nation in sports to allow matches.
South Korea suffered one of the worst early COVID-19 outbreaks outside of China, prompting professional sports to suspend or delay its seasons, a pattern that has been repeated around the world.
But the country appears to have flattened the curve thanks to an extensive tracking, testing, and treatment program, and soccer's comeback comes after baseball started fan-less on Tuesday.
The K-League is Asia's first major competition to return to action, while Europe's giants remain sidelined and only the German Bundesliga so far makes concrete plans to resume.
Friday's opening game will be between defending champions Jeonbuk Motors, who are managed by former Jose Mourinho assistant Jose Morais and champions Suwon Bluewings.
Jeonbuk has been the dominant team for the past decade, winning five of the last six league titles, and is again a favorite.
Another top contender among the 12 K-League teams is Ulsan, who has finished in the top four in each of the past four years.
But it will be a different football than Friday, with strict health controls and hygiene measures applied on the field.
Players and coaching staff are subject to temperature checks prior to each game and if anyone becomes infected during the season, the affected team and those who played against them will have to take a two-week break.
Instead of traditional pre-game handshakes, players have been asked to bow their heads from a distance, while avoiding celebrating goals with teammates and talking.
The K-League step-by-step virus outbreak response manual has been shared with some 40 professional soccer competitions worldwide, including England. Premier league and the German Bundesliga said the K-League.
But questions have been raised about the new security guidelines.
It is impossible not to speak to his teammates, Incheon United captain Kim Do-hyeok told reporters.
If we can't have conversations on the field, we better not play soccer.
The new K-League season will be a live-action oasis in a world where sports fans have been deprived of that content by the virus, and broadcasters turned to replays of games from the past few years.
The lack of live sport has resulted in a new worldwide interest in South Korean soccer.
Ten foreign broadcasters from China, Hong Kong to Croatia have bought the rights to broadcast next season, while those from Germany, France, Italy, the United States and Australia have also consulted, the K-League said.
The K-League will broadcast Friday's game live on YouTube and Twitter with English graphics and commentary for international fans, it added in a statement.
On the ground, the K-League said spectators will be able to progressively return to stadiums as the government eases its quarantine measures.
The new soccer season comes just two days after the return of professional baseball in South Korea, which has reached a television deal with ESPN for American fans.
And South Korea will become the first country to see women next week professional golf resume after COVID-19.
South Korean players dominate women's golf with eight ranked in the top 20 in the world, including number one Ko Jin-young.
The $ 1.8 million Korean Professional Golf Association Championship starts on May 14 in Yangju, east of Seoul, with world number six. Kim Sei-young and Lee Jeong-eun, ranked 10th, in the field of 144 players.
South Korea has only seen a trickle of new coronavirus infections in recent days, with two new cases reported on Wednesday, both arriving abroad, bringing the total to 10,806.