Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/5/2020 (298 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Football is back.
It returned on a warm, cloudless Friday night in Jeonju, South Korea, a mid-sized city about 200 kilometres directly south of Seoul. The United States beat Mexico here at the 2002 World Cup — the famous Dos a Cero match — and nearly 18 years later Fort Jeonju, as the stadium is nicknamed, was once again, however briefly, the centre of the football world.
Not that the sport had gone away entirely. Defying global norms, the leagues of Belarus, Burundi, Nicaragua, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan had either continued or commenced in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, nationalistic chest-thumping drowning out any meagre voices of caution in states where strongmen rule.
But the launch of the K-League was different. Initially rocked by coronavirus, South Korea’s response was held up as an international model. Rigorously testing and contract tracing its own population, it nevertheless became a net exporter of testing kits and personal protective equipment — such was the competence and preparedness of its public health apparatus.
And so, with the major leagues of Europe watching closely, and the professional sports of North America observing with interest, champions Jeonbuk Motors hosted FA Cup winners Suwon Bluewings in a match streamed free on Twitter and YouTube and televised by 36 new international rights holders.
At times, it looked almost normal. The immaculate, manicured pitch wouldn’t have been out of place in any major division at the start of a schedule; the play, often sloppy and disjointed, had all the hallmarks of an early season encounter, the rust not quite worn off. Thanks to the precision of the camera work, it was only the match itself that was framed. Set-pieces occasionally revealed the empty stands, but for the most part the focus was squarely on the play.
The soundtrack wasn’t quite as natural. Without a crowd, the organizers piped recorded chants into the ground, although they were diminished enough so as to hear the players yelling and talking excitedly on the pitch. Such communication was supposed to be against the pandemic-era rules, as the K League outlined in its plan to begin the 2020 campaign. But perhaps the officials had been instructed to go easy, at least this time, as everyone accustomed themselves to the new regulations. At one point, even the referee chatted casually with a group of players, a modest smile on his face. Gladness had won out over safety, at least for a moment.
The first worried incident occurred in the 14th minute when the match officials gathered for discussion. Was this it, the end, already? Had something happened? Had a test returned positive? No, it turned, out. The ball had lost pressure and they were requesting a new one. But the tension of the pause revealed the sort of nervousness that will hang over team sports, at least in the short term.
A few minutes later a heavy challenge brought down a player. Out of sporting instinct, he and his assailant exchanged a brief clasp of hands as play resumed. Pre-pandemic the occurrence wouldn’t have been at all noteworthy. On this day, the fleeting contact had the risky appeal of taboo.
For the most part, Jeonbuk Motors dictated the tempo and direction of play. Debutant Murilo Henrique, having played last season with Brazilian club Botafogo (SP), menaced the Suwon defence and combined well with South Korea international Kim Bo-kyung, who was making his Jeonbuk return after spells with Kashiwa Reysol and Ulsan Hyundai. On the other side of the ball, Canadian defender and former Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps player Doneil Henry did well to marshal the Bluewings defence for the balance of the match, and Australia forward Adam Taggart posed the occasional threat.
But it all came apart for the guests in the 75th minute when Terry Antonis, another Australian, was shown a straight red card for a violent tackle. Eight minutes later the hosts finally broke through — 41-year-old striker Lee Dong-gook, a five-time K League champion and four-time MVP, heading the ball into the back of the net for what proved to be the winning goal.
As the ball went in, K League football was trending in Canada and held four of the top 14 trending topics here in Winnipeg (kickoff was 5 a.m. CDT), mirroring interest in the match from all over the world.
That said, it could well have been the high point of the South Korean season, at least as international attention is concerned. Germany’s Bundesliga is slated to restart a week from now, and La Liga, the Premier League and Serie A will perhaps follow. They all intend to, anyway, but eight more positive tests among players in Spain on Friday underlined the folly of such plans.
Football is back. At least for now. At least until tomorrow. Like most things in pandemic life, it’s a day-at-a-time undertaking. Tentativeness is the only approach.
But for two hours on Friday, the world somehow seemed a bit more normal, a hint of its old self.