An eight-month wait for the new Chinese Super League to start is nearly over, a delay nearly as long as it takes to play a regular season. And July 25 can't come soon enough for the players and coaches.
With the central city of Wuhan the original epicenter of the coronavirus that brought sport around the world to a halt, the 2020 Chinese soccer league, due to kick off on Feb. 22, was the first to be suspended. While neighbors such as South Korea restarted in May and Vietnam in June, Chinese teams have had to wait.
There was talk of May and June starts in China, too, but with stars such as Marouane Fellaini, who joined Shandong Luneng from English giant Manchester United in 2019, becoming infected and new cases of the virus springing up in the country, there were growing concerns that the season would be canceled.
“We played our last game at the start of November and the most challenging aspect of this was that the league kept getting delayed," Afshin Ghotbi, coach of top-tier team Shijiazhuang Everbright, told The Associated Press. “That was difficult for the players who have been through quarantine and isolation from their families.”
Shijiazhuang spent two months in an Abu Dhabi training camp before being allowed back to China in March to undergo 14 days in quarantine.
The Chinese Football Association announced the start date on Wednesday.
“China’s battle to prevent and control the epidemic has achieved major strategic results and the national epidemic prevention and control situation continues to improve,” it said in a statement.
Ghotbi said it was a “big thing" to finally have a date.
“It gives us something to aim for," he said. “When I told the players, I could see their concentration and energy move up a level. They now know it is time to step up.”
When the league finally kicks off it will do so in the twin hub cities of Suzhou and Dalian in order to minimize travel and risks of infection. Details have yet to be confirmed but it is expected that the league’s 16 teams will be divided into two groups of eight with the winners playing off against each other.
It’s most likely that group stage matches will be held without spectators. A decision will be made whether to allows fans to the latter stages of the season.
While Shijiazhuang does not have the deep pockets of big-spending teams such as Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG, Ghotbi, a former head coach of Iran, hopes that his background working with national teams will help with the shortened format.
“I have worked at World Cups and Asian Cups and this may be a similar tournament style situation with many games in a short space of time. We also have an advantage in that we have all our foreign players with us and have the entire team together.”
China’s tightening of entry requirements for foreigners from March and the reduced number of international flights have meant that teams have had a tough time bringing players and coaches back from overseas. Beijing Guoan is still waiting for Brazilian stars Renato Augusto and Fernando to arrive from South America.
Some clubs resorted to drastic measures. In June Dalian Yifang paid a reported 3.57 million yuan ($530,000) to hire a charter flight to bring head coach Rafael Benitez back from Spain.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid coach has been busy trying to get his players, who have not had competitive action since November, up to speed by July 25.
“Players in the English Premier League were concerned about the lack of training time before the games started” Benitez said. “This is the situation we face too.”
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