How South Korea's K-League took first tentative steps to get back to football

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The first round of games in the South Korean K-League season was completed on Sunday, giving the rest of the world an idea of how football may look as it tries to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

First though, the results.

Champions Jeonbuk Motors kicked off the campaign with a 1-0 win over Suwon Bluewings in Friday's curtain-raiser. The following day, last season's runners-up, Ulsan Horangi, stormed to the top of the table with a 4-0 win over Sangju Sangmu, Seongnam won 2-0 at Gwangju and Daegu F drew 0-0 with Incheon United.

On Sunday, Busan I'Park lost their first game back in the top tier, falling 2-0 to Pohang Steelers, while Gangwon FC defeated FC Seoul 3-1.

There was huge interest around the world, as 1.8 million watched the opening game on the league's official Twitter account, while 36 countries have purchased broadcasting rights -- not just for the football itself, but also to see how the safety measures worked out.

A new way of playing

With no spitting allowed and talking reduced to an absolute minimum, players in South Korea had to get used to the new normal. After preseason friendlies at the end of April, Incheon captain Kim Do-hyeok said: "No spitting is not a problem but it is impossible to play football without talking."

He was right on both points. There was a noticeable lack of spitting with players mostly doing so at the end as they drank from their (individually labelled by name, of course) water bottles.

"We tried not to spit or cough in the direction of other players," Daegu FC striker Dejan Damjanovic, the second-highest goal scorer in the league's 37-year history, told ESPN. "Everyone is still talking the same, however."

For observers, as there is relatively little on-pitch chat in the K-League, it is hard to judge as, in normal times, players' voices don't rise above the general stadium noise. With no fans present, it was easy to hear general shouts and goalkeepers telling defences to concentrate ahead of corners.

Such instructions are fine. Much had been made of a ban outlawing all on-pitch chat, but this is not really the case. Authorities are keen to reduce conversations at close proximity as well as spitting, as K-League communication chief Woo Cheong-sik told ESPN.

"Players that do so repeatedly and on purpose will be warned," he said. "There is nothing the referee can do because it is only written in the manual [a document detailing the K-League's measures during the coronavirus outbreak], not in the laws of game, but the league might consider punishment if a player intentionally and continuously does this."

There were no handshakes or hugs, with bowing and fist-bumping on display instead.

Behind closed doors

There is no getting around the fact that football played without fans is inferior.

"It was a really strange feeling from entering the stadium to the warm-up and the game," Damjanovic said. "The stadium was too quiet, though, and this is the worst thing. We play much better when the atmosphere is hot and loud. At first I felt like it was a friendly game, but after the first tackle, I was back to reality."

In the Korean baseball league, which started Tuesday, some teams put posters of fans on seats and their scoreboards were divided into multiple squares that showed fans watching at home.

Football supporters draped banners with messages of support behind the goals and the teams piped in chants during the game. This was timed to coincide with action on the field and worked reasonably well, although the recording of Ulsan fans singing, "Have a good journey home" in mocking fashion as their team were winning 4-0 over Sangju would have worked better had there been away fans present.


Over 1,100 players and officials tested negative for the virus at the end of April and everyone entering the stadium had temperatures taken. Anyone not on the pitch or warming up also had to wear masks at all times. Most managed to do just that with some snazzy club-branded protective equipment on display, but there were times when it slipped.

Coaches had talked of how difficult it was in preseason friendlies to get their instructions across to players during a game while masked, and there were occasions when masks were lifted. Not all substitutes wore the masks correctly at all times, but overall, it worked pretty well.

Damjanovic was substituted with 26 minutes remaining and had to put on a mask. "It was tough, but we all know this is something we need to understand and get used to. The important thing is that we started the season."