J. League first-division club Sagan Tosu suspended all activities in the wake of a cluster infection within the team Wednesday, forcing the last-minute postponement of one game and throwing several more into doubt.
The club, based in Kyushu’s Saga Prefecture, tested 89 players and team officials Tuesday after manager Kim Myung-hwi was found to be infected with the new coronavirus Monday afternoon.
Six players and three staff members showed strong indications of infection in their initial tests. A player and staffer who reported fevers Tuesday returned positive antigen tests earlier in the day Wednesday, while the rest were given additional PCR tests that came back positive later in the afternoon.
Initial results from Sagan’s PCR tests resulted in the J. League’s decision to cancel Wednesday night’s Levain Cup match between Sagan and Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
“With as many as nine infections (today), we decided that it would be difficult to hold today’s Levain Cup match as scheduled,” J. League Chairman Mitsuru Murai said in a joint news conference that took place before the PCR test results were verified.
During a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday night, Sagan President Minoru Takehara said that the club would cease team activities until around Aug. 25 based on guidance from the local health center, with players asked to remain in their homes “until the infection stops spreading.”
On Thursday night the J. League announced that Sagan's next three first-division fixtures — home against Gamba Osaka (Aug. 15), away at Vegalta Sendai (Aug. 19) and home against Consadole Sapporo (Aug. 23) — would be postponed.
"The J.League has established its guidelines in order to allow soccer to continue as much as possible," said Murai in a league statement. "However, with so many positive cases in one club and government officials having designated (Tosu) as a cluster infection, we have to go above and beyond to insure that infections don't spread. Therefore we have made the decision to pause Tosu's club activities temporarily and postpone their games during that period."
The cluster appears to have originated with 39-year-old Kim, who, according to a club statement, experienced “slight feelings of discomfort” Saturday but traveled with the team for its 2-0 defeat away at Kashima Antlers.
After returning to Saga on Sunday, Kim held a meeting lasting over 15 minutes with his coaching staff while not wearing a mask. He later reported feeling fatigued and registered a fever of 38 degrees Sunday night.
While his temperature returned to normal Monday morning and he participated in another training session, Kim remained lethargic and was advised by team medical officials to receive IV fluids for heatstroke. After going to a local hospital, Kim was given a PCR test as a precaution and hospitalized after it came back positive Monday afternoon.
“I don’t know if it’s correct to say that we were deficient (in our coronavirus countermeasures),” said Takehara, “but we recognize that, for example, after eating, some people may have left their masks off for a little while. We’re taking extreme measures (to eliminate close contact).
"When the players take off their masks, it isn’t for a long time, and in the locker room they were always wearing their masks. The lockers have been divided into three areas and there was still a cluster infection.”
Three Tosu staffers were identified as having had close contact with Kim; they were among the 89 players and officials tested Tuesday but were eventually found not to be infected.
While other J. League clubs have publicly announced the names of those infected, Sagan declined to do so in its announcement and Takehara said he did not expect to do so in the future. The J. League’s coronavirus guidelines do not mandate that teams reveal the identities of those infected with the virus.
“Out of consideration for those involved and in order to protect their personal information, we won’t be announcing their names,” Takehara said. “We hope that the rights of the infected and their families will be respected.”
Wednesday’s cup tie was the third J. League game to be postponed as a result of infected players and the second involving Sanfrecce, whose July 26 J1 fixture against Nagoya Grampus was pushed back after two Nagoya players and two staffers were infected and additional contact tracing could not be completed before kickoff.
The league announced on Thursday night that the game would not be rescheduled and both teams would be awarded a single point. Sanfrecce and Sagan had been eliminated from contention for the knockout stage through other results in Wednesday’s final round of group stage games.
“I’m very sorry to our fans who were looking forward to this game,” Sanfrecce chairman Shingo Senda said Wednesday. “Having to cancel a second game on the day of has caused a lot of trouble for (our supporters). We hope that everyone infected at Sagan Tosu recovers quickly.”
Responding to Wednesday’s news, Antlers announced that they had not discovered any incidents of close contact between Kim and Kashima officials and that facilities at Kashima Soccer Stadium had been professionally disinfected as precaution.
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