K League: Football makes surreal return as Jeonbuk beats Suwon 1-0

South Korean concerns over COVID-19 escalated hours before the delayed K League season opener, which was won by Jeonbuk Motors on Friday.

Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors in action on Friday in South Korea's K League.   -  Getty Images

Less of a footballing goldfish bowl, more of a petri dish, football returned in South Korea on Friday.

The timing could hardly have been worse.

Just hours before kick-off, news emerged of a fresh breakout of cases in the Seoul district of Itaewon, triggered by a 29-year-old coronavirus carrier visiting a string of bars and nightclubs last weekend.

Such unwitting carriers pose a lethal threat, and deputy health minister Kim Gang-lip reportedly said the initial group of 13 detected cases could swell, given over 1,500 people attended those same venues.

The mention of cluster infections drives fear into the heart of South Koreans, as it would anywhere across the globe.

The carrier had not been wearing a mask, the Korea Herald reported, and the government has now instructed nightclubs and entertainment venues to close their doors from Friday evening

 

So to the football, where the unmasked players of Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings - all recently tested - clashed behind closed doors at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium.

Former Middlesbrough and Werder Bremen forward Lee Don-gook gave Jeonbuk a 1-0 win with an 83rd-minute header, the 41-year-old darting in at the near post to meet a right-wing corner.

READ: South Korea's K League: When and where to watch

The K League 1 season, which could not get under way in February, is underway three months behind schedule.

With handshakes banned and players apparently urged to keep talking to a minimum, it was an odd affair, made all the more perverse by piped in drumming and crowd chants echoing around the stadium.

South Korea has officially recorded 256 deaths from coronavirus, acting swiftly and seemingly efficiently through targeted testing and contact tracing to contain breakouts.

Still, when Jeonbuk, which won a fifth title in six years last season, emerged to the euphoric refrain of Queen's We Are The Champions, there was no little cringe factor.

A stand carried the slogans '#C_U_SOON' and 'STAY STRONG' written across its seats, while behind one goal there was a giant flag belonging to the Mad Green Boys, Jeonbuk's official supporters' group.

At the other end, seats were covered by adverts for new Hyundai cars. Amid the crisis, there remains room for commerce.

Jeonbuk is managed by Jose Mourinho's former Inter, Real Madrid and Chelsea assistant Jose Morais, who began the match in a sharp grey suit with a smart green club tie and matching face mask.

Bafflingly, the mask was nowhere to be seen when cameras swivelled his way at one point in the second half.

The team physios wore masks, and the pitchside officials had their faces covered too, except when they didn't, which seemed desperately too frequent.

- What of the match? -

Predictably, both teams were rusty and perhaps the referee was out of practice too, ruling out a penalty after looking at video replays of a handball by Suwon's Canadian defender Doneil Henry early in the second half.

Suwon had Australian midfielder Terry Antonis sent off with 15 minutes to play after catching Son Jun-ho around the ankle with a rash challenge, and finally Jeonbuk broke the visitor's resistance.

How to celebrate in the coronavirus era? Fistbumps all round. A nod to health workers, probably a touch more physical contact between team-mates than would be ideal.

But was any of this ideal? Will it be remotely ideal when football returns next week in the Bundesliga, or if Spain, Italy and England's top flights secure their desired June returns?

Was it enjoyable? As enjoyable as the BBC giddily foresaw? Its website giggled: "Yes it's in South Korea and, yes, you probably don't know any of the players. But who cares? It's football and it's live."

It's football, and it's tolerable, but as the final whistle sounded and silence followed, and as the population worried in Seoul about this latest COVID-19 outbreak, honestly, it was hard to care.

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