World watches as K-League kicks off today
Korean league, first major football competition to resume amid Covid-19 pandemic, hopes to capitalise on dearth of live action
South Korea's K-League will have a profile it has never enjoyed before when the delayed 2020 season kicks off in Jeonju today, providing top-flight football action to a world starved of live sport.
Defending champions Jeonbuk Motors open the season when they host Korean FA Cup holders Suwon Bluewings at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium in a fixture delayed by more than two months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
|JEONBUK MOTORS||SUWON BLUEWINGS|
Broadcasters from 10 countries, mostly in Asia and Europe, have bought rights for the season and today's match will be streamed live with English commentary on the league's Twitter feed and YouTube.
With the baseball season having started on Tuesday, South Korea is well aware that it is blazing a trail for nations returning to normality after the coronavirus shutdown.
"I expect sports to give hope to the people desiring the recovery of their daily lives as early as possible," the country's President Moon Jae In said on Wednesday.
No fans will be allowed into the stadium for the match despite South Korea's widely admired success at containing the spread of Covid-19, allowing a move from social distancing to "everyday quarantine" as of Wednesday.
Other protocols have been put in place to protect the health of the players.
A nod of the head will replace the traditional pre-match handshake, spitting is discouraged, and excessive goal-scoring celebrations are banned.
Even talking is discouraged, prompting Incheon United captain Kim Do Hyeok to say: "It's impossible not to talk to your teammates. If we can't have conversations on the field, we may as well not play football at all."
Players and staff will also have their temperatures checked when they enter the stadium, even though they have all been tested for the virus.
"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 communication, told Reuters yesterday.
"So about 1,100 players and coaches and team staff members were tested and fortunately everyone came back negative."
If any players or staff test positive for Covid-19 during the remainder of the season, their team will be suspended from competition for two weeks.
The strict convention of wearing facemasks in public in South Korea will be eased for the duration of each fixture.
The league is passing on the lessons they have learned to other professional leagues around the world through their safety manual, Lee said.
The K-League is hoping fans will be able to return to stadiums before too long in a season cut to 27 rounds from 38 because of Covid-19 control measures.
The attention the K-League is receiving by getting players back on the pitch while other leagues remain in furlough has, however, helped make up for a lack of revenue from ticket sales.
"The biggest source of revenue for the league and teams is broadcast rights and sponsorship," Lee added.
"Fortunately, we've been getting world attention by being able to open the season a bit early, and we're hoping that through this world exposure, we'll be trying to generate more sponsorship and broadcast revenue."
Jeonbuk, who have won the K-League for six of the last seven years, are strong favourites to retain the title this year under Portuguese coach Jose Morais, who was Jose Mourinho's assistant at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea.
Suwon won their fourth league title in 2008, but they boast last season's top scorer in Australian Adam Taggart, who found the net 20 times in 33 games.
The 26-year-old striker, one of five Australians playing in South Korea, told The Sydney Morning Herald that he's experiencing a gamut of emotions - relief, disbelief, gratitude, wonderment and even a tinge of guilt.
"It's obviously a pretty crazy scenario... You sort of feel bad that you've got the opportunity to play while so many don't," he said. - REUTERS