In a pre-season friendly in the penultimate week of April in South Korea, two Incheon United players picked up water bottles, went to drink, stopped, laughed and then swapped. Name labels on bottles will be easy to adapt to but it remains to be seen if other measures will be widely accepted.
There are sure to be plenty watching to see what happens when the K-League starts on 8 May. South Korea has been a global inspiration in battling coronavirus and now has the chance to provide a similar example in the field of football.
In its 37-year history, the league, Asia’s oldest, has never had the kind of attention it will get on Friday evening as the 2020 season finally kicks-off. The year started with a frustrating search for a new domestic broadcasting deal but now media companies from around the world, desperate for live sport, have been knocking on the door of the league’s headquarters in Seoul. Ten international deals have been done – from China to Croatia – with others being negotiated.
“Live football is really rare these days,” Kwon Oh-gap, the president of the K-League, says. “It is a great opportunity to let the world know about Asia’s top league. We hope fans will forget about the virus when they watch the K-League.”
Taiwan and Turkmenistan may still be playing but the K-League, which has produced more Asia champions than any other, is a different level. It should have kicked off on 29 February, the champions Jeonbuk Motors, coached by José Mourinho’s former assistant José Morais, facing the cup holders Suwon Bluewings. That day, however, saw the country record 909 coronavirus cases, its highest number. Now with new local infections down to single digits since mid-April – and down to zero on 4 May – the situation is deemed to be safe enough.
“In the process of preparing for the league to begin we consulted with medical experts and their common opinion was that we can consider starting the league when the number of confirmed patients was under 30 for at least two weeks,” Kwon says.
To get from February to May has been a slog with lots of hard work. All 1,100 staff and players were tested last week and within six hours, all came back negative, with the K-League picking up the tab.
There is no concern about football taking resources away from other sectors. Such is South Korea’s capacity it has been exporting tests around the world. Aggressive and extensive testing and tracing have helped it limit the number of deaths to 252 and on 15 April, 66% of a 44 million electorate voted in national elections without any apparent ill-effect.
There is no complacency, however. The 12-team league has already reduced the number of games this season from 38 to 27 and the campaign will be count as long as 22 fixtures are completed.
“The virus has calmed down but it hasn’t completely ended,” the president says. “If a case of the virus is confirmed in a team during the season, then their fixtures, as well as their opponents, will be suspended for at least two weeks.”
Other leagues have been in touch. “Various national football associations have asked questions about the K-League’s step-by-step response process and how to operate in the current situation. We are more than happy to cooperate and share the manual.”
The manual helps map out the process but there will be differences on matchday. There are no fans but that should change sooner rather than later and, like at the Asian Champions League games in February, fans will be wearing masks and have their temperatures taken before entering the stadium.
Post-match interviews will take place on the pitch, not in a cramped stadium corridor, with reporters staying two metres away. There will be no shaking of hands and coaches are exploring ways to get their instructions across while wearing masks.
“Excessive spitting or blowing of the nose is prohibited and players should refrain from close conversations,” says the K-League communication officer, Woo Cheoung-sik. “During the game, players who habitually spit or talk closely will be warned.” Sanctions for those who spit and talk repeatedly and/or deliberately will be decided by the league.
There has been some pushback on this. The Incheon captain, Kim Do-hyeok, said not spitting is fine but not talking is impossible. Officials believe a middle ground will be found with everyone just happy to get back on the pitch.
“Our goal this year is to complete the league,” Woo says. Anything else is a bonus but whatever happens the world will be watching.