Jeonju, South Korea – Soccer is back in South Korea for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports around the world, and its success or failure will be closely watched by leagues everywhere.
The K-League season kicked off Friday in Jeonju with defending champion Jeonbuk Motors playing in an empty stadium but with chants piped in from supporters. Instead of fans, banners with messages of support were draped around the stands.
The hosts beat Suwon Bluewings 1-0 in a match that was broadcast to 36 countries, including Germany, Britain, India and Australia. The game was also shown on YouTube and on the league’s Twitter page.
Former Middlesbrough striker Lee Dong-gook came off the bench to score the winning goal.
"I think it is the first time for me to play without fans and I hope they can come back soon,” said Lee, who failed to score during his spell in the Premier League. "With the goal, I think I have reminded fans around the world that I am still around.”
Suwon was forced to play with 10 men after Australian midfielder Terry Antonis was shown a red card for a rash tackle. The 41-year-old Lee, the all-time leading scorer in the K-League and the Asian Champions League, headed home a corner nine minutes later.
As part of the league’s new safety measures, there were no handshakes and officials, coaching staff and substitutes were all required to wear masks.
There was little sign of spitting or of in-game "close” conversations with teammates and opponents, actions the K-League said can be punished if they are repeated.
"You could see that the players felt awkward playing in an empty stadium but it was great to finally start the season,” Jeonbuk coach Jose Morais said.
Morais formerly coached English club Barnsley and was an assistant to Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, but he’s getting ready for the soccer world’s focus to turn to South Korea with three games scheduled for Saturday and two more on Sunday.
"It is the first time to have such international interest in the K-League,” Morais said. "For the players, more than a burden, they have a responsibility to show their best game to the world and to show what the league is all about.”
The league paid for 1,100 tests on players and staff at the end of April, and all came back negative. It has also shortened the season from 38 matches to 27. That number could be reduced further to 22 games if there is second wave of infections.