China football to begin in virus ‘bubble’

Saturday, July 25th, 2020 00:00 |
Shanghai SIPG’s Hulk controls the ball during their Chinese Super League match against Shandong Luneng in Shanghai on May 13, 2019. INSET: Players and coaching staff from the Wuhan Zall football team arriving in Suzhou, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province on July 18, 2020 . Wuhan Zall, the club from the coronavirus epicentre, will play on the opening day of the Chinese Super League in a symbolic start to the delayed season. Photo/AFP

Some players have brought their own pillows and one even has a box of Lego as the much-delayed Chinese Super League prepares to launch on Saturday in a tightly controlled environment to thwart the coronavirus.

Hundreds of players will spend about 70 days in two sealed-off hotels as China’s top-tier football season, which was scheduled to start in February, gets under way more than five months late.

Despite the highly unusual circumstances, the CSL’s start is a big step forward for sport in China, where the virus emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year before spreading worldwide. 

The league is on edge, however, and held an emergency meeting late Wednesday after several coronavirus cases sprang up in Dalian, one of the two cities staging matches, Xinhua news agency said.

Players wearing masks trooped out of team buses and into their hotels earlier this week.

Together with referees, coaches and essential support staff, CSL stars such as Paulinho, Oscar, Hulk and Marko Arnautovic will not be able to see their families for more than two months.

The 16 teams have been split into two groups for the first stage of the drastically revamped season, one based in the northeastern city of Dalian and the other in Suzhou, near Shanghai.

All squads are stationed at a single hotel in each city and apart from that the players will see only stadiums and training pitches.

Hotel staff in the designated “blue” zone are likewise not allowed to mix with the outside world.

Players will be tested once a week for coronavirus and need to download a mobile app that among other functions helps pinpoint their whereabouts, according to media.

Shandong Luneng coach Li Xiaopeng urged his squad -- who include Marouane Fellaini, the former Manchester United midfielder who tested positive for coronavirus in March -- to keep some perspective.

“If you compare it with previous seasons, this year is a bit longer (in a hotel),” he said this week.

“But if you compare it to nurses and doctors who helped fight the virus, who did not know when they can go home, at least we know that in 70 days we can leave.” Nevertheless, psychologists will be on hand should they be needed.

“We understand that people will live in a relatively small area for a long time and it’s a little bit hard for everyone to adjust,” the CSL’s leading epidemic official told state media.

“The players need to display their professionalism now,” said Qi Jun.

Players will not be allowed to drink alcohol but the Taimei Xiangguli Hotel in Suzhou and Crowne Plaza in Dalian have been turned into miniature towns with cafes, hair dressers, libraries and convenience stores. For entertainment there is karaoke, retro video-game machines, table tennis and games rooms.

Oscar, Hulk and Arnautovic’s Shanghai SIPG, who will play in Suzhou, have reportedly installed their own arcade-style “claw machine” with pink and white fluffy toys up for grabs.

Shanghai Shenhua’s international defender Bai Jiajun indicated he plans some quality time alone -- he was pictured with a large box of Lego.

Interaction between players from rival teams looks likely to be minimal. At the Suzhou hotel each team has its own building, while in Dalian they have whole floors to themselves.

It is easy to forget that there is a football season of sorts to be played. The CSL, which has drawn international interest after luring foreign players and coaches on vast wages, was one of the first sporting victims of coronavirus when the February 22 start was indefinitely postponed.

It will finally kick off with an unfamiliar format and matches behind closed doors, in line with other leagues around the world rebooting during the pandemic.

The first phase lasts until the end of September and sees teams play two matches a week. 

Fabio Cannavaro’s reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande open the season against FA Cup winners Shenhua on Saturday in Dalian.

Later that day Wuhan Zall start the action in Suzhou, in a symbolic nod to the city’s well-publicised fight against coronavirus. They play newly promoted Qingdao Huanghai. -AFP

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