Football is back, firstly to the K-League, as Jeonbuk beat Suwon Bluewings behind closed doors. Jeonbuk head coach Jose Morais tells the Totally Football Show what it was like…
On Friday, the football world’s attention was exclusively on Jeonju, the 16th largest city in South Korea.
Unless you’ve been keeping bang up to date with the Belarusian Premier League (and congratulations to BATE Borisov for getting the best of an eight-goal thriller against FC Smolevichi to reclaim top spot over the weekend), the K-League was the first place you could watch actual, live, real football in a couple of months. Perhaps you don’t usually keep up with football in South Korea, but in an arid, featureless desert, even the smallest and most unfamiliar cup of water is guzzled down greedily, and many people were guzzling as they tuned into the BBC’s K-League coverage at the weekend.
Reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC edged out ten-man Suwon Bluewings thanks to a late header by Lee Dong-gook, a 41-year-old substitute who keen students of the game may remember from his sole season at Middlesbrough 13 years ago. The game was played out behind closed doors, empty green and yellow seats stretching as far as the eye could see, the legend ‘Stay Strong’ spelled out in the bleachers, the eery silence usually only familiar to reserve team games or particularly stolid afternoons at Old Trafford, echoing around the Jeonju World Cup Stadium.
As a viewing experience, it wasn’t brilliant, but equally wasn’t quite as bad as you might have feared. The game was of modest quality, hardly a surprise when these players hadn’t seen competitive action since the 2019 season ended in November, but it was football. Actual, real, live football. You were even momentarily delighted to see the (fortunately not literal) ankle-breaker of a challenge that saw the Bluewings Australian midfielder Terry Antonis dismissed with 15 minutes to go.
There was no escaping the strangeness of the occasion, though. The empty stands combined with the crowd noise piped in, played over the stadium PA, was enough to emphasise that.
But for Jose Morais, the Jeonbuk manager and erstwhile member of Jose Mourinho’s coaching staff who led them to their seventh K-League title last year, everything quickly felt normal. Well, sort of.
“This is the funny thing,” Morais tells the Totally Football Show. “You have all these procedures before the game, and you’re conscious that “OK, I have to do this, I have to do that.” But as soon as the game starts, the emotions and the focus is on the game. And you played the game as it used to be. You don’t avoid anything because it’s so unconscious. It’s like breathing. You don’t control breathing.
“It became natural. It’s is the nature of the of the game. You tackle, you challenge in the same way. I think this is the beauty of the game.”
To prove the point, the more attentive viewer may have spotted Morais wearing his Hyundai-branded face mask in the first half, but after the break it was nowhere to be seen.
“I had the mask, and then I went into the dressing room at half-time and I was speaking with the players. When I came back, I forgot the mask. But no one saw that I didn’t have the mask because the focus was already on the game. Everybody was so involved in the game that is that they don’t realise.
“Nobody said “Coach, I will go inside and get you the mask because you you need to have the mask.” The concern wasn’t anymore about this, it was about the game only. Everybody’s so focused in the game. The game, the game, the game and the game.
“We know that we are taking measures and we are concerned about things, but at the end when the game starts, everyone cares just about the game, they are there for the game, for the beauty of the game.”
Of course, there is a serious point here. Those masks aren’t just for yucks, and if simple measures like that can be so easily but understandably forgotten after just one game, Morais understands that they might need to be enforced more stringently.
“Probably we will have to consider some rules and probably the referee will need to control the discipline on the bench. In the same way that they they look to see if the player is ready to play before they come onto the pitch, maybe they need to control if everybody has their masks. In the beginning now, in the first days, it will be it will be understandable that in some moments we forget.”
Some things aren’t easy to forget though, even in South Korea where, before this weekend at least, the spread of the virus has been relatively minimal. When asked what the biggest disruptive factor about playing the game behind closed doors, aside from the obvious lack of fans, Morais says:
“I think it’s knowing that by any circumstances, you are certainly exposed to a possibility to be contaminated with the coronavirus. This is definitely a concern. I think all the rest you can deal with.”
Morais says this in a fairly matter of fact way, but it’s a pretty stark reminder of what we’re asking footballers to do. While the rest of the world has been advised to stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary, these players are expected to chase each other around in the sort of close proximity that has been strongly discouraged, if not explicitly forbidden. It’s the moral question that will – or at least should – dog anyone encouraging football to return on wider scale.
But for a short period of time, until the Bundesliga returns at the weekend and everyone else cautiously dips their toes into the water of a post(ish)-covid sporting existence, the K-League is the one everyone else will be looking towards.
“We were aware of this,” says Morais. “It’s normal, because it was the first game in this pandemic. There is no precedent, nothing telling us the measures that we have to take in situations like these are this, this and this. The world wants to understand how we can do things, in order to preserve the safety and the health of the participants, all of them. We are trying to learn with each other.
“It’s a special moment. It’s a moment of courage, because we don’t know – we think that we are doing the best thing, but the reality is that we will only know the results while things are running. So we don’t have any experience from examples before.”
For the football addicts among us, the K-League will be one of the few places to get a football fix for a while. But for how long? On Sunday disquiet in Korea was growing after 34 new cases were reported in Seoul: to us in the UK, where 20 times that number dying each day seems to be a sign for some people that life should go back to normal, that seems like an infinitesimal number. But there hadn’t been more than 30 cases reported in a day for over a month, and with many of those new cases linked to one man who visited three separate discotheques at the weekend, Seoul’s mayor Park Won-soon responded by ordering over 2,100 bars and nightclubs to close.
All of which is a reminder that we shouldn’t necessarily get too used to seeing football on our screens again. The presence of football is, and will be for some time, china doll fragile. It could all disappear as quickly as it reappears. But for a while on Friday, as we watched players we had barely heard of rustily play out a game in front of 42,000 vacant plastic seats, football was back and we felt normal.
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