CFA hails ‘precious result’ as Super League returns

Players of Wuhan Zall and players of Qingdao Huanghai pay a silent tribute to martyrs, who died fighting COVID-19, and compatriots, who lost their lives in the epidemic, prior to the 2020 Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL) first round match between Wuhan Zall and Qingdao Huanghai at Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre on July 25, 2020 in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province of China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

The Chinese Super League began its 2020 season at the weekend, with seven matches played and one more to follow this evening.

It is the second of China’s major sports leagues to resume after the Covid-19 interruption, with the CBA basketball league getting started last month. The CSL restart was more fraught, with football authorities taking several months to come up with a plan that satisfied Chinese government and health officials.

The matches began with a minute’s silence for victims of the pandemic. The Wuhan Zall team from the pandemic epicentre city, who spent 104 days on the road after being stranded in Spain, were given a guard of honour by opponents Qingdao Huanghai. Zall unveiled a banner thanking the Chinese people and honouring “anti-epidemic heroes”. A group of doctors and nurses admitted to the game as special guests were applauded.

Empty seats in the stadiums were draped with large banners with encouraging messages for the teams and images of their cities. Live images and sounds of fans watching and cheering from home were beamed into the stadiums via special screens set up around the pitches.

League sponsor Ping An, an insurance and financial services firm, is providing players with special insurance protection and medical services in light of the Covid-19 risk.

Domestic digital media rights partner PP Sports streamed the opening matches for free, and reported audiences in the tens of millions.

Liu Yi, secretary general of the Chinese Football Association, said the league’s return was “a precious result”.

News agency Xinhua reported that “The Chinese sports industry is recovering from the shock cause by epidemic, and the CSL’s kick-off whistle means a lot.”

The league’s measures to address the Covid-19 threat are based on epidemiologists’ advice, which has produced a 132-page set of guidelines for the resumption. Players and staff were tested for the virus before gathering together, and will be tested every week. The league has been split into two groups of eight teams, following a model used by the CBA. Each group is based and will play its matches in a single city, either Dalian or Suzhou, both in Jiangsu province. Matches will be played behind closed doors.

The first phase of the competition will involve 14 rounds, and will run until September 28. A second phase will see groups split into top and bottom halves, with the top halves playing each other for the championship and the bottom halves to avoid relegation.

The CSL teams are based in a single hotel in each city, and the hotels have been outfitted with facilities to make the stay more comfortable, including shops, cafes, barbers and games rooms. Visitors, including family, are prohibited. Referees and hotel staff are taking part in the quarantine.

The league restart continued despite last-minute concern over a renewed outbreak of Covid-19 in Dalian, where 14 cases were reported last week. The cases were linked to a food processing factory, and the CSL responded by outlining measures to trace the provenance of food supplied to people taking part in the league restart.

Xinhua reported that the CSL’s success in resuming will be closely watched and if successful may encourage the government to allow further opening of the sports industry.

The 2020 CSL season was originally due to start on February 22, but was postponed indefinitely when the pandemic began.