After five months of delay, the Chinese Super League (CSL) resumed on July 25 in two Chinese cities, Suzhou and Dalian.
The top-level Chinese professional football tournament was scheduled to start in late February but was delayed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese Football Association tried several plans to seek approval from governing authorities to restart the tournament and after several rounds of negotiation, the CSL started in two Chinese cities with strict public health protocols and requirements.
16 CSL teams are now divided into two groups in Suzhou and Dalian. Players, coaches, and accompanying team staff must stay on-site in a closed environment managed by league officials for the first two months of the tournament. The games will be played behind closed doors without any spectators in the stadium. Furthermore, AFP reported that players will be tested for coronavirus once a week and will not be allowed to meet their family members.
The 2020 CSL will be in a different format from its traditional tournament style games. Teams will face the other seven teams in their groups twice in the first phase of the competition. After finishing the first part of the tournament. The 16 teams will be reshuffled into two groups depending on their standings in the league: The top half and the bottom half.
The top-half group will go through a championship style quarter-finals and classification games. The winner of the final game will be the 2020 CSL champion. The bottom half will go through similar measures, but the last two teams in the second part will come down to a one-game face-off. The loser of the face-off game will become the 16th ranked team in the tournament and will be relegated to the second-tier Chinese League One in 2021. The 15th ranked team will face the runner-up in the 2020 Chinese League One to decide its fate. The winner of the extra round will advance, or stay in the 2021 CSL tournament.
The CSL is the second professional sports tournament that was permitted by Chinese authorities to return after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) tournament was the first professional sports tournament to resume in late June. China has ruled out the possibility of having any international competitions earlier this month.
In the first game of the 2020 CSL tournament, Guangzhou Evergrande claimed a 2-0 victory over Shanghai Shenhua with two goals from Chinese national Wei Shihao in the 7th and 66th minute.
Shandong Luneng defeated Dalian Pro with a final score of 3-2. Belgian football player Marouane Fellaini scored the first hat trick of the 2020 CSL season in 8 minutes and helped his team secure three points from the first match day in the tournament. The 32-year-old football player tested positive for coronavirus earlier in March. He spent three weeks in hospital before getting discharged in April.
China’s lower-division football tournaments don’t yet have a return date scheduled. Chinese League One and Chinese League Two will be on hold indefinitely pending developments with the CSL. Media reports are speculating the second-tier league to start in August.
While the top-level Chinese football league is continuing with its games, several issues also attracted media attention. One of the host cities for the 2020 CSL Dalian is currently troubled by a surge of COVID-19 cases. As of July 25, the city reported 12 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. This also resulted in an increasing number of cases in other neighbouring cities and provinces. A spokesperson from the municipal government reaffirmed the city’s commitment to “take the utmost precautions to ensure the well-being of all players and club staff.” Dalian will be under temporary lockdown starting July 26 and will aim to test 1 million people for COVID-19 every day.
On July 25, Ricardo Goulart sparked a round of media controversy following a picture he took with fans in Suzhou. The 29-year-old was caught not wearing a mask while taking pictures with fans after getting off the team’s bus. Goulart is currently loaned to Hebei CFFC while still under contract with Guangzhou Evergrande. The Brazil-born football player may be the first person to be sanctioned by the CSL for violating public health protocols. The picture also raised concerns on the league’s management to secure a closed game site, as fans were able to approach team buses and players at a very close distance.
The owner of Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese real-estate tycoon, Xu Jiayin claimed that players from Guangzhou Evergrande will face severe penalties for violating any public health requirements and other regulations. Chinese football player Yu Hanchao, who was formerly playing for Guangzhou Evergrande, was fired by the team after getting caught changing his vehicle license plate number to avoid traffic tickets.
The Chinese Football Association and the CSL have yet to disclose any information regarding Goulart’s incident. It is uncertain if Guangzhou Evergrande will take any disciplinary actions against Goulart following the incident.
Goulart became a naturalized Chinese citizen in 2019, hoping to have the opportunity to play for China in the 2022 World Cup Qualification Tournament. FIFA has yet to rule on Goulart’s eligibility to play for China.