Chinese Super League at risk of being cancelled due to coronavirus outbreak

Rafa Benitez’s Dalian Yifang have been forced to remain in Spain on their pre-season training camp

Tony Evans
Tuesday 11 February 2020 08:04 GMT
Guangzhou Evergrande's Paulinho in action in the Chinese Super League
Guangzhou Evergrande's Paulinho in action in the Chinese Super League

There are growing concerns that the Chinese Super League season could be cancelled because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The campaign was scheduled to kick off on 22 February but fixtures have been delayed indefinitely. Teams have been told that they will be given 15 days’ notice if and when the decision is taken to resume the competition. The earliest possible start will now be in April.

Rafa Benitez’s Dalian Yifang were conducting pre-season preparation in southern Spain when the crisis escalated and the club have elected to remain in Europe until they receive further direction from the authorities. The team considered moving their training camp to South Korea or Japan but have decided to stay on the Costa del Sol until the uncertainty has cleared up. They do not expect to fly home until at least March 16.

Benitez’s squad are not the only Super League squad in Spain. Super League rivals Wuhan Zall, who are based at the epicentre of the epidemic, also escaped the Chinese winter for the Spanish sun. The team left Hubei Province in early January and are well beyond the incubation period of the virus but the fear of infection is so strong that Gibraltar-based Europa Point and Krasnodar, the Russian side, cancelled friendly matches against Wuhan.

There is no sign of the epidemic slowing down. The spread of the illness has caused the cancellation of a wide range of sporting and entertainment events across China and farther afield. The Asian Champions League group stage kicked off yesterday but the competition has been badly affected with games involving all four Chinese qualifiers called off this week.

The first three matchdays for Super League teams have been postponed until April and May with the exception of Beijing Guoan’s game against Chiangrai United in Thailand next week. Beijing have been training in South Korea since before the outbreak took a serious turn.

Even in countries where Coronavirus does not have a foothold, the Asian Champions League has been overshadowed by the crisis. Jeonbuk have told supporters to wear face masks and will conduct temperature checks at the gates tomorrow night before the South Korean club’s group match against Japan’s Yokohama. The Asian Football Confederation is likely to hold an emergency meeting to discuss options for the Champions League if the spread of the illness does not slow down in the next week.

The problems are even worse for the domestic game in China. A number of Super League teams have been out of the country for the past few weeks, readying themselves for the new campaign in Japan, South Korea, the Middle East and Europe. They have been left in a state of limbo by the crisis unfolding in their homeland and unless the virus is brought under control rapidly the campaign may have to be shortened or, in a worst-case scenario, abandoned altogether.

The season could still be completed by trimming the international breaks – which are longer than in Europe because the national team is given precedence over the club game - or by playing fixtures in midweek. If the concerns over Coronavirus continue for a prolonged period, however, completing the 30-game programme will become more and more difficult.

Benitez is remaining calm despite his side being forced to remain in Spain for the foreseeable future

Benitez is phlegmatic about the delay but the situation is far from ideal. The 59-year-old is eager to continue the work he started last summer. He has committed to Dalian for two more seasons and expects to see out his term in China even though there has been renewed interest in his services in Europe. The Saudi Arabian-backed consortium attempting to buy Newcastle United would be very keen to see the Spaniard return to his former role at St James’ Park but Benitez’s £12.5 million net per year paycheque makes buying out his contract expensive.

It may be some time before the former Liverpool manager and his team are able to return to Dalian, though. More than 40,000 people have become ill with the condition and upwards of 1,000 have died. Football is the least of China’s problems at the moment.

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