Having earned global acclaim for containing Covid-19 and conducting elections in the time of a pandemic, South Korea has again got the world looking towards it. The east Asian country started its baseball season on Tuesday and will kick-off K-League, its top football competition, on Friday. “Because it is South Korea, fewer eyebrows will be raised,” said India captain Sunil Chhetri. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, South Korea was one of the worst affected countries behind China, the epicentre. But with some of the most aggressive testing and contact tracing done anywhere in the world, they also quickly became the model of how to fight the pandemic.
“The start of K-league is definitely encouraging news for everyone in Asia,” said India head coach Igor Stimac from Split, Croatia. “But let’s be patient and see how things settle down in other countries. We all miss the games and our normal routine. But rushing back too soon might cause greater damage.”
Some of the things shown in the K-League promotional video clip won’t happen—like players throwing shirts to the crowd. There won’t be a crowd, at least now. Celebrations too are unlikely to see hugs, huddles and players in a heap. But when Jeonbuk FC take on Suwon Bluewings on Friday, the world of sport will hope it is the first step in a restoration act.
“If I can, I will watch them,” said Spanish footballer Jaime Gavilan, who played for Bluewings in 2016-17. Having recently been permitted to step outside for a run, Gavilan, 34, said life in Madrid now is “comme ci comme ca (so-so)”. “But they (South Korea) make things better than here. That is why they can start the league, one of the most important in Asia.” Gavilan also played for ATK in the ISL, and now plays in the Spanish second division.
South Korea will be the first country that played in the 2018 World Cup to start football. And it has spiked interest in a planet starved of live sport. From struggling to get a new broadcaster at the start of the season, K-League 1 and 2 now has a lead broadcaster and two more for the domestic audience and has sold rights to 10 countries, China, Hong Kong and Croatia among them. On-line football platforms from Singapore, Holland and Britain too have acquired video licenses.
“We hope fans will forget about the virus when they watch the K-League,” K-League president Kwon Oh-gap told The Guardian.
Football federations of different countries have asked K-League how they can resume playing, he said, days before news broke that Bundesliga could resume later this month, the Super Lig in Turkey would restart on June 12 and that players in La Liga and Serie A have begun training.
To start the season, K-League paid for testing players and staff — all 1100 of them. The league president said the go-ahead was contingent upon South Korea being able to keep the number of patients to below 30 for two weeks. There have been 13 new cases over the past three days in the country, all of them international passengers, according to a AFP report on Thursday. South Korea has reported 256 deaths due to Covid-19, according to worldometers.info.
K-League coaches will wear masks, there will be no handshakes and if anyone returns a positive test, the team won’t play for at least a fortnight. Players will be allowed to drink only from bottles with their names on them. They will be warned for talking, spitting on the pitch and blowing their nose.
“That will give another layer of protection,” said Chhetri, locked down in Bengaluru and recovering from surgery. “Let’s say someone who is positive slips through despite the best effort. To protect the rest, they won’t be allowed to talk when they are close to a player. It will be difficult to ensure this but these are not normal times. I am also sure physical distancing requirements will make the shower area different.”
Chhetri said he would be, “very apprehensive and a little happy” if he had to play now. “Apprehensive because of the way it spreads and worried that everyone involved in a game, right down to the ball kids, could be carrying the virus. When we start, we will have to think about all these things. Eventually this day will come for every country. When a vaccine is out things will be different.”
Five-time Olympic rowing champion Steve Redgrave has questioned the idea of playing without fans, saying it is motivated by business. For example, not resuming the Premier League in England could mean a deficit of 1 billion pounds, the league has said.
“I genuinely don’t feel people are thinking clearly about the ramifications if we don’t play…it’s partly about money. And we should all care about the money,” said Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish in an AP report.
In his interview in The Guardian, Redgrave has said, “the object of sport is to bring people together, and inspire them.” But till a vaccine comes along, Chhetri said, playing behind closed doors will be the new normal. “I don’t see how we will be back to packed stadiums before that.”
Players will find empty stadiums a strange experience, said Gavilan. In 2015 when he was at ATK, the average attendance in Kolkata for ISL games was over 50,000. The maximum for a Bluewings game in 2016-17 was around 15,000, he said.
England cricketer Jos Buttler though sees crowdless venues differently. “There is no one watching you and you are playing because you love the game,” he told Lancashire Cricket.
Exactly how K-League players feel will be known by the weekend.