Players, coaches, and fans have two weeks to get used to new rules around soccer in South Korea after the K-League announced Friday that the delayed season will kick off on May 8.
Jeonbuk Motors will take on Suwon Bluewings in the opening game, which was originally scheduled for February 29.
The league was suspended when South Korea went into lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, and players have recently returned to training and started playing practice games this week.
There have been more than 10,700 cases of COVID-19 in South Korea and 240 deaths, according to a tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Restrictions are gradually being lifted and new daily cases of the coronavirus have dropped to single digits this week in South Korea after peaking in February, but not enough to allow fans to attend games at the start of the season.
The league is also imposing strict social-distancing regulations for players on and off the field. On the field, it apparently means players can’t even converse with teammates or officials during games, and definitely no shaking hands.
“Things like not spitting during the game, we can do no problem but not talking to teammates is impossible,” Incheon United captain Kim Do-hyeok told reporters after a practice game. The interviews took place on the field rather than in the usual mixed zone inside the stadium. “If we can’t have conversations on the field, we may as well not play soccer at all.”
Kim is hoping spectators will be soon back in the stadiums cheering on the 10 teams in Asia’s oldest professional league. The Korean baseball league has also started pre-season games and is set for opening day on May 5, also in empty stadiums.
Sports leagues and events in most parts of the world have been shuttered during the pandemic.
“It would be great to play in front of fans, but if we all play our part in stopping the spread of the virus then they will soon be back in their seats,” Kim said.
Coaches are having to adapt, too.
Suwon coach Kim Do-gyun had issues trying to communicate with his players while wearing a mask.
“It’s true that it is uncomfortable when you are trying to give instructions during the game,” Kim said. “At the moment, however, these are things that you have to do.”
By John Duerden for the Associated Press