World first: South Korea’s K-League readies for return to play this week

May 6 – On Friday, football’s spotlight will turn to South Korea and the resumption of the K-League, the first major Asian league to kick off again after the coronavirus pandemic forced the global game into shutdown. South Korea has been widely hailed for its success in combatting and containing the coronavirus. 

The K-League is one of Asia’s leading leagues, but this will be the first time in its 37-year history, despite co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, that it will have had global focus.

The league returns in a rebooted version with safety guidelines in place to prevent on-field contagion. There will be no handshake before kick-off, spitting will not be allowed and even talking between the players on the field is restricted. Goal celebrations have been curbed and post-match interviews will have to be conducted taking social distancing into account.

“Live football is really rare these days,” said the president of the K-League Kwon Oh-gap. “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.”

Defending champions  Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings had been supposed to kick off the season on February 29, but that day South Korea registered more than 900 coronavirus cases and the season was postponed. The two-month delay, however, could be a blessing in disguise. At the start of the year TV rights negotiations had stalled, but with so little live sports available the K-League rights have been sold in at least 10 countries. Friday’s opening game will be live-streamed on Youtube.

On Tuesday, baseball returned to action in the country, which through an extensive programme of tracing, testing and treating, in line with the guidelines of the WHO, succeeded in containing the virus and flattening the curve. South Korea, with a population of 51 million, registered 10,806 confirmed cases and just 255 deaths, according to the latest data from the Johns Hopkins University.

“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,” said Kwon.

The K-League staff and players have all been tested and the results all came back negative. The league paid for the tests, but didn’t come under fire for using up public testing capacity as South Korea has had one of the world’s most extensive testing regimes in place

The Koreans, however, have not ruled out a scenario in which the virus resurfaces and directly affects players or the league’s staff. The 12-team league campaign will be deemed complete if 22 match days are completed. The season has already been reduced to just 27 rounds, down from 38.

“The virus has calmed down but it hasn’t completely ended,” said Kwon. “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.”

Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1591038424labto1591038424ofdlr1591038424owedi1591038424sni@o1591038424fni1591038424


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