South Korea’s K League will have a profile it has never enjoyed before when the delayed 2020 season kicks off in Jeonju on Friday, providing top-flight soccer 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 put back more than two months by the coronavirus outbreak.
Broadcasters from 10 countries, mostly in Asia and Europe, have bought rights for the season and Friday’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.
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 on Thursday.
“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 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 the COVID-19 delay.
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.”
The K League is Asia’s oldest professional league, dating back to 1983 when the splendidly named but now-defunct Hallelujah FC were the inaugural champions.
It has fallen behind the other top East Asian leagues in profile in recent years despite boasting more Asian club champions than any other nation, with Jeonbuk accounting for two of the 11 titles won by South Korean sides.
Jeonbuk have also won the K League for six of the last seven years, making them strong favourites to win the title again this year under Portuguese coach Jose Morais, once Jose Mourinho’s assistant at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea.
Suwon’s fourth title came back in 2008 but they boasted the league’s top scorer last season in Australian Adam Taggart, who found the net 20 times.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, currently undergoing three weeks national military service on the island of Jeju, is a reminder that there is also homegrown talent in South Korean football.
That talent is now set for worldwide exposure, especially as the strict convention of wearing facemasks in public in South Korea will be eased for the duration of each fixture.
“As the game gets underway, players will be playing without their masks on,” Lee said.