Chinese football season to begin July 25 after five-month virus delay

Beijing (AFP) –


The Chinese Super League season will begin on July 25 after the coronavirus pandemic delayed it by five months, the country's football association said on Wednesday.

It is a major boost for sport in China and another sign of life returning to normality in the country where COVID-19 emerged late last year before spreading globally.

The 16-team league, which had been originally due to kick off in February, will be played under a different format instead of the usual home-and-away competition.

Clubs will be split into two groups, one in the northeastern city of Dalian and the other in Suzhou, near Shanghai, the China Football Association (CFA) said.

The CFA said the league would "strictly abide by the requirements of national epidemic prevention work".

But the CFA statement did not say whether fans would be allowed to attend, or which teams will play in each group in the revamped format.

The CSL, which has drawn international interest in recent years by luring big-name players and coaches on world-leading wages, had been scheduled to start on February 22.

However, it became one of the first sporting victims of the coronavirus in January when the new season was indefinitely postponed.

The CFA said in February that it would introduce an extra transfer window before the league started to help clubs struggling to complete player transfers due to the outbreak.

The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) became the first professional sports league in China to resume on June 20, although no fans are allowed to attend matches.

The CBA has similarly divided up into two groups in two cities to prevent the spread of infections.

There has only been one confirmed coronavirus case among Chinese Super League players -- Shandong Luneng's former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini.

The Belgian international tested positive in March, just after returning to China for the new season, and spent three weeks in hospital.

Chinese clubs have endured a long pre-season as they awaited the new campaign, with most beginning their disrupted preparations at the start of the year.

The defending champions are Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, but of their opponents from last season will be missing.

Cash-strapped Tianjin Tianhai disbanded during the shutdown and will be replaced by Roberto Donadoni's Shenzhen FC, who were relegated last season.

Football leagues across the globe have returned to action in recent weeks with no spectators and strict virus prevention measures in place.