Chinese soccer scores crucial recovery goal

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Shanghai SIPG fans cheer for their team during a Chinese Super League match in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, on Aug 22. They were among the first 2,000 fans allowed into a soccer stadium in China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. LI BO/XINHUA

Scenes of soccer fans cheering loudly, hugging one another and waving banners in support of their team have largely disappeared around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, with the outbreak under control in China, supporters have been given a well-earned chance to return to the stadium.

On Aug 22, the Chinese Super League, or CSL, reserved 2,000 seats for fans and representatives of front-line medical workers for a match in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, between title contenders Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guo'an, which Shanghai SIPG won 2-1.

The game was among those played in the sixth round of matches this season.

It was also the first time this season, which kicked off behind closed doors in late July, that supporters had been allowed into a stadium.

There are plans to admit fans to four more games in the eighth and ninth rounds of matches early this month and to those in the 10th to 14th rounds, providing that CSL and local epidemic prevention regulations are complied with.

Liu Yi, secretary-general of the Chinese Football Association, or CFA, said: "In terms of allowing fans to enter a stadium, soccer has an advantage, as it is played outdoors. But considering the scale of operations in the CSL, there are still many challenges.

"We hope more fans can return to stadiums, but in the meantime we have to avoid any risks."

Liu said that with limited opportunities to learn from experiences in other coun-tries, epidemic prevention experts in Suzhou made considerable efforts to draw up plans and regulations to ensure that fans had an enjoyable time and remained safe.

Tickets for CSL matches can only be bought through a real-name registration system. Potential spectators must provide a health QR code containing their recent travel data, along with a nucleic acid test result for the coronavirus within seven days, so that if any COVID-19 cases are confirmed, organizers can track the sour-ces as soon as possible.

"I think Suzhou is a great city. The authorities know that welcoming the CSL will help showcase the city and boost the local economy," Liu said.

"After several meetings, we reached agreement on issues including epidemic prevention measures, security, transpor-tation and ticketing. We have had very effective cooperation with Suzhou.

"Allowing fans to return to the stands for CSL matches signifies the sports industry's success in the battle against the pandemic."

Vitor Pereira, head coach of Shanghai SIPG, welcomed the return of fans and said they are like a "family" to the club and "indispensable" at matches.

Supporters quickly seized the chance to watch the team play at the stadium, despite the number of admission proce-dures involved.

Shanghai SIPG fan Chen Yiwen told The "I saw on the news that the CSL could possibly open the stands, and we kept our eyes open. When we saw the club's announcement confirming this, all the fans were thrilled. We haven't watched any games at stadiums for nearly a year.

"I went to a hospital to take a nucleic acid test. Before she carried out the proce-dure, the nurse asked me why I needed the test, and was surprised when I told her it was to attend a soccer match.

"All of us feel that the CSL has done a good job in epidemic prevention. We all wore face masks and waited in line to have a temperature check before we entered the stadium."

Delayed start

This year's CSL season was due to kick off on Feb 22, but the pandemic forced a postponement. The CFA pushed for a start in late June, but reportedly failed to obtain government approval due to inad-equacies found in anti-virus measures.

After Zhang Wenhong, a leading expert involved in China's efforts to contain the coronavirus, was installed by the CFA as its anti-epidemic consultant, approval was given for the season to start behind closed doors in July, with the 16 teams split into two groups based in Suzhou and Dalian, Liaoning province.

Strict prevention methods have been adopted for matches in both host cities, with players and club staff members tak-ing a coronavirus antibody test and two nucleic acid tests 21 days before they arrived.

Since the season started, nucleic acid tests have been given each week to every-one involved with the matches, including the media and support staff members. Antibody tests are conducted once a month.

In both host cities, a color-coded sys-tem being used in stadiums and living areas limits the movements of players and coaches.

Players, coaches, referees and key staff members assigned to blue zones are under strict lockdown, with no contact with the outside world allowed.

Qi Jun, a CSL official in charge of the epidemic prevention team, warned before the season started that any violations of the rules would not be taken lightly.

"I hope everyone understands that a violation of the epidemic prevention poli-cies does not mean just a penalty or a fine," Qi said, adding that such a trans-gression could result in the person con-cerned being required to leave the match and not being allowed to attend any more CSL games this season.

Foreign stars

Before the season kicked off, the CSL faced a major problem in bringing foreign players and coaches back to China, due to the imposition of pandemic-related travel restrictions.

The league has since secured the return of most of the overseas players and coach-es, and they continue to excel.

Nine of the league's top 10 scorers in the first seven rounds of matches are from overseas.

Stars such as Guangzhou Evergrande's former Barcelona midfielder Paulinho, Shanghai SIPG's former Chelsea player Oscar and Shandong Luneng's former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini are key players for their clubs and major attractions for fans.

Paulinho posted on his Sina Weibo account: "I wish to show my respect to the CFA, the CSL and my club Guangzhou Evergrande, because all of them have made a great contribution to the start of the 2020 CSL season. All the details satis-fied our players. I hope we can have a per-fect CSL season."

With the season shortened due to the late start, the CSL decided to change the match format, which is being conducted in two phases.

First-phase matches, due to be complet-ed on Sept 28, are being contested in a round-robin format. A knockout stage will follow to decide the champion, AFC Cham-pions League slots and relegation places.

This is something new for the foreign stars to cope with.

Ricardo Goulart, on loan at Hebei Chi-na Fortune from Guangzhou Evergrande, said: "This is a special year and we've nev-er played under such a format. The Chi-nese Football Association has made great preparations for the season and taken good care of us. All the details are great."

The players face another challenge in how to spend their time away from the pitch in the lockdown areas for some two months. The CFA has provided a host of recreational facilities in these areas, including pool tables, basketball courts, reading rooms, video games and even karaoke areas.

Former Dutch star Giovanni van Bronckhorst, now coaching Guangzhou R&F, said: "For everyone it's quite diffi-cult. We are ready, but we have to be fresh all the time. Not only myself as the coach, but also my staff and players. It's very important to maintain our energy and competitive levels."

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