South Korea’s K League kicked-off on Friday (8th May), over two months later than scheduled following the suspension caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The start of the top-flight football season in the Asian nation, which was due to begin at the end of February, with defending champions Jeonbuk Motors facing Suwon Bluewings in the southwestern city of Jeonju, and comes just four days after the resumption of the baseball season in the country.
Over a thousand COVID-19 tests were carried out by the K League on players and staff at the end of April – all of which came back negative – which meant the season could start.
To minimise any potential risk of the virus spreading, players are prohibited from shaking hands, spitting excessively, and talking closely to teammates, opposition players, and match officials.
Although fans have been banned from attending stadiums – many of which were built for the 2002 World Cup and have capacities of over 40,000 – there has been growing anticipation about the start of the league season with sport around the world mostly in lockdown.
Hong Jeong-ho, the South Korea and Jeonbuk defender, said the lack of action elsewhere could showcase the quality of the Korean league to a global audience.
"We have the chance to let football fans from all around the world know that there are many good players in our country if we perform to our best on the pitch,” he told the Asian Football Confederation website before the game.
"Due to the coronavirus I feel even more grateful that I can play football and I realise the importance of the game and of the fans."
The 12-team league season has already been shortened from 38 rounds to 27, but this could be reduced to 22 if required. K-League president Kwon Oh-gap said, "If there is a case of the virus in a team during the season, that team and any team they played against will be suspended for at least two weeks".
K League players to watch out for, with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon
Korea has already qualified for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Tokyo 2020, but who are most likely to feature in their team?
We take a look at five young hopefuls vying to book a place at Tokyo 2020 next summer.
Kim Dae-won, 23 (U-23 caps: 12)
Kim Dae-won plays as a striker for Daegu FC and has scored 15 goals in 87 games for the K League 1 club. The tricky forward has established himself as ‘one to watch’ at next year’s Olympics, having helped secure Korea Republic’s qualification with a second-half goal against Australia in the AFC U-23 Championship Thailand 2020.
Lee Dong-jun, 23 (U-23 caps: 12)
He may be only 23-years-old, but Busan winger Lee Dong-jun played every game for his club in 2019. Having established himself as an ever-present first team player, Lee has scored 20 goals in just 80 club appearances. His goals against Iran and China in the group stages of the AFC U-23 Championship also proved vital in securing his country’s place in Tokyo.
Lee Dong-gyeong, 22 (U-23 caps: 9)
Lee Dong-gyeong formed an important part of the Korea Republic team that triumphed in the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship, scoring his country’s second goal in the 2-0 victory against the Olyroos that secured their Olympic qualification. The midfielder, who plays for Ulsan, has already played twice for the senior national team, with coach Paulo Bento describing him as "a highly skilled player who can make quick decisions in tight spaces".
Kim Jin-gyu, 23 (U-23 caps: 8)
Busan midfielder Kim Jin-gyu burst onto the scene in 2015 when he became the youngest goalscorer in the K League 1 following a goal against Daejeon. He has since gone on to make over a century of appearances for his club and established himself as a key member of the U-23 team.
Lee Sang-min, 22 (U-23 caps: 18)
Having played for the national team at U-17 and U-20 levels, Lee Sang-min has become a stalwart of the U-23 defence, having made 18 appearances. While he is best known as a young and promising defender, the Seoul FC player also received a national award after he gave artificial respiration to teammate Jeong Tae-wook who had been knocked out during a 2017 U-20 match against Zambia.