Football as never seen before

Covid-19 rules football debuts this evening in empty stadiums in South Korea as the sport makes a comeback.

The tight regulations to mitigate coronavirus risks will change the beautiful game significantly during these testing times when the crippling disease sweeps the world.

Early thoughts on the extraordinary measures suggest that while football played during the pandemic will lose its spark, it is a bold step towards bringing sport back into the spotlight.

South Korea – where new local infections were down to single digits since mid-April and down to zero on May 4 – has been a global pride in battling the disease with their “trace, test and treat” initiative. It now has the chance to provide a similar inspiration to major sports leagues steeling themselves to play behind closed doors.

The world watches on today as the 37-year-old K-League gets unprecedented attention when the 2020 season, postponed from Feb 29, finally kicks off.

Desperate for live sport, media companies worldwide have been courting the K-League that at the start of the year could not even get a new domestic broadcasting deal. Since sports leagues and events in most parts of the world have been suspended during the outbreak, 10 international deals – from China to Croatia – were quickly done.

Taiwan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Burundi, Nicaragua and Tajikistan may still be playing but the K-League, which has produced more Asia champions than any other, is a different
level. Still, it remains to be seen if the unusual football rules, which certain quarters have deemed ridiculous, will be widely accepted.

For one, players are prohibited from close conversations. There goes the excitement of who is going to take that free kick or penalty. How do players approach the referee to protest an infringement? If players cannot get close to each other, let’s see if close proximity marking and tackling happen.

Would we see players pushing each other and flying into crunching tackles? Would we see the goalkeeper all by himself during corner kicks as physical distancing disallows players closely surrounding him? Corner kicks – one of the game’s most incisive attacking
weapons – often create mayhem with players lurking in the box, but will corners be thrilling under the new rules?

Coaches and others on the bench are required to wear masks, but you wonder how they will communicate tactics and instructions. There will be no goal celebration because hugging or jumping on one another is forbidden.

Then, there is no spitting on the field which should have been a rule long ago. Watching coaches animatedly walking up and down the sidelines having a good spit on the ground is
disgusting. Similarly, a lot of footballers appear to just spit for something to do. You often see them spitting before they come on as a substitute or at other times when they are not running. With spitting barred, you are unlikely to see players chewing gum which they think makes them look cool.

Blowing of the nose is also unacceptable as is that nasty cheap shot when a player launches a snot rocket on an opponent’s face. And there will be personalised water bottles, so you will not see players passing bottles when play is temporarily stopped. You guessed it – no exchange of team shirts either.

At the end of the match, there will be no handshakes just as pre-match, so we wait to see how coaches and players will display sportsmanship.

Post-match interviews will take place on the pitch, not in a cramped stadium corridor with masked reporters staying two metres away. All these will be happening in empty stadiums filled with echoes and air, rather than noise and life.

It would be like watching a game with no volume unlike in the past when there was wild joy at one end and jitters at the other.

The presence of fans makes the heart soar, but public health risks are just too great for mass gatherings in stadiums and, just as pointedly, for fans on their way there.

Meanwhile, the FA of Malaysia (FAM) who are thinking of resuming the domestic championships in September appear to be groping in the dark. They have yet to initiate a manual on how to operate in the current situation.

Perhaps, the FAM leadership should watch the opening K-League match between Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings at 5.55pm today (Astro SuperSport HD Channel 811) to learn
from the Korean experience.

Frankie D’Cruz is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.