The towering stands of the 42 477-capacity Jeonju World Cup Stadium
stood empty on Friday as South Korea opened football's post-coronavirus
era without fans, but with an unprecedented international TV audience.
With most leagues worldwide sidelined by the pandemic, the K-League
is the first competition of any standing to come back to life and a host
of safety precautions have been imposed, with wild goal celebrations
and even talking discouraged.
The long-delayed season-opener between defending champions Jeonbuk
Motors and Cup-holders Suwon Bluewings will be watched by sport-starved
fans in a swathe of foreign countries, even though spectators are not
yet allowed at K-League games.
Ahead of the match only the media section of the stadium, which
hosted three matches of the 2002 World Cup, was occupied, and rather
than cheers of anticipation, the only sound was chatter among
journalists and staff.
Paper sheets taped to stadium seats spelled out "#C_U_SOON" and "STAY
STRONG", while one end was draped in a giant green banner for the Mad
Green Boys, the Jeonbuk fan club.
The match, played under stringent safety guidelines, is the first
glimpse of post-virus football and similar scenes are likely elsewhere
as other leagues get underway.
All personnel entering the stadium had their temperatures checked and
were required to wear facemasks, and hand sanitisers were located
throughout the venue.
Players have been told to avoid excessive goal celebrations, handshakes, close talking and blowing their noses.
With fans around the world long deprived of live sport, the K-League
has signed season-long rights deals with broadcasters who will show
games live in 36 countries and territories including Britain, Germany,
The K-League, whose start was delayed two months by the pandemic,
will also be livestreamed on YouTube and Twitter with English graphics
And the BBC secured a one-off deal for the opening match, which will be livestreamed on its website.
"Football is back!" the British broadcaster proclaimed, noting it had been 59 days since the last Premier League match.
Bows, not handshakes
Last year the K-League sold rights to only six countries, all of them in Asia.
"Because we had limited exposure to international fans, it is true
that the K-League was largely unknown globally despite its
competitiveness," said league spokesman Lee Jong-kwoun.
"2020 will be the first year the league will be recognised and assessed on a global level."
The K-League's progress will be watched closely by other leagues
including the giants of Europe, where Germany's Bundesliga is the only
competition so far to set a date to return, on 16 May.
Players and coaching staff will have their temperatures checked
before each game and anyone at 37.5 C or more will be isolated
If anyone gets infected during the season, their team and those who played against them will have to take a two-week break.
And instead of the traditional pre-game handshakes, players have been asked to bow their heads from a distance.
South Korea endured one of the worst early outbreaks of Covid-19
outside China, prompting professional sports to suspend or delay their
seasons, a pattern that was repeated worldwide.
But the country appears to have flattened the curve thanks to an
extensive "trace, test and treat" programme, and football's return comes
after baseball started this week, also without fans.
Life in South Korea has returned largely to normal, with workers
going back to offices this week under eased social distancing rules,
while a stay-on-base order on its 600,000 strong military was lifted,
allowing conscripts to go on leave.
Schools will start re-opening next week.
Authorities reported 12 fresh coronavirus cases Friday, taking the total to 10 822.
The K-League said spectators will be allowed back into stadiums progressively as the government eases its distancing measures.
The new football season comes just three days after the return of
professional baseball in South Korea, which has struck a television deal
with ESPN for US fans.