S. Korean football kicks off with new audience, safety measures

Seoul (AFP) –


South Korean football will reach new international TV audiences as it leads the way by restarting after the coronavirus on Friday, but there will be no crowds or wild goal celebrations -- and even talking is discouraged.

With most leagues worldwide sidelined by the pandemic, the K-League is the first competition of any standing to come back to life, watched by sport-starved fans in a swathe of foreign countries.

It will provide the first glimpse of post-virus football, with teams under orders to stick to stringent safety guidelines to prevent any contagion.

Players have been told to avoid excessive goal celebrations, handshakes, close talking and blowing their noses, while the stadiums will be devoid of spectators.

But with fans around the world long deprived of live sport, the K-League has signed rights deals with broadcasters in nearly 20 countries including Germany, Switzerland and Australia who will be showing games live.

The K-League, whose start was delayed two months by the pandemic, will also be livestreamed on YouTube and Twitter with English graphics and commentary.

Last year rights were sold 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."

Defending champions Jeonbuk Motors -- managed by Jose Mourinho's former assistant Jose Morais -- face Cup-holders Suwon Bluewings in the season-opener in Jeonju, a host city for the 2002 World Cup.

- Bows, not handshakes -

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 May 16.

Players and coaching staff will have their temperatures checked before each game and anyone at 37.5 C (99.5 F) or more will be isolated and tested.

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.