The Chinese Super League held a minute’s silence on Saturday before the season kicked off five months late because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Players bowed their heads to remember virus victims and honour medical staff as Fabio Cannavaro’s reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande beat FA Cup winners Shanghai Shenhua 2-0.
Wuhan Zall, the club from the city that was ground zero of the pandemic, play newly promoted Qingdao Huanghai later Saturday in Suzhou, near Shanghai.
The opening match of the badly delayed campaign was played in an empty stadium in the city of Dalian, which along with Suzhou is hosting behind-doors games for the next two months.
A smattering of security personnel and doctors wearing white coats were allowed to watch the match in the stands in recognition of their efforts against the virus. All had face masks on.
Moments before kick-off, Evergrande’s captain Paulinho, the Brazilian international midfielder, and his team-mates unfurled a banner reading: “Salute to medical workers.”
Shenhua’s players wore T-shirts to honor coronavirus “heroes”.
Chinese international forward Wei Shihao scored both goals for Cannavaro’s side, one in each half.
The number of virus infections has dwindled markedly in China but Dalian is currently the scene of a small cluster of fresh cases, putting Chinese football officials on edge.
The Chinese Football Association and Chinese Super League (CSL) are taking no risks with the new season, which was supposed to begin in February but became one of the earliest sporting victims of the health crisis.
The 16 CSL teams have been divided into two groups, in Suzhou and Dalian, and players must spend the first two months living in sealed-off hotels.
The likes of Brazilians Paulinho, Oscar and Hulk, and former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, will see only their hotel, training pitches and stadiums.
They are not allowed to meet their families and will be tested for coronavirus once a week.
The 32-year-old Belgian Fellaini is the only known coronavirus case in the CSL and spent three weeks in hospital before his release in April. He was not seriously ill.
Domestic sport is slowly resuming in China, with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) league set to welcome fans back into matches from Sunday.
However, the Chinese government has ruled out staging most international competitions this year to stop the spread of coronavirus.
On Friday, all top-level tennis tournaments pencilled in for 2020 in China were cancelled, including the WTA Finals and Shanghai Masters.
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