While many leagues struggle to restart amid the coronavirus pandemic, the long-awaited K. League season is set to get underway and Jeonbuk Motors head coach Jose Morais is both curious and excited.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the globe, with more than 248,000 casualties and at least 3.5 million confirmed cases.
Coronavirus has forced the Olympic Games, Euro 2020 and the 2020 Copa America to be pushed back to 2021, the Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga and Serie A have been postponed, while the 2019-20 Ligue 1 and Eredivisie seasons have been cancelled.
But as Europe's major leagues desperately try to relaunch their campaigns, South Korea's K. League is preparing to kick off on Friday – Morais' three-time defending champions Jeonbuk hosting Suwon Bluewings behind closed doors.
"Here we have increased confidence about the return to normality and things are stacking up in order, the businesses are re-opening and normal life is returning to our daily routine," Morais, who worked as an assistant coach to Jose Mourinho at Inter, Real Madrid and Chelsea, told Stats Perform. "It looks good."
The K. League was originally scheduled to start on February 29, but South Korea's top division was postponed five days prior to that date due to coronavirus.
"We are lucky because in South Korea, clubs in the K. League have very good conditions," said Morais, whose Jeonbuk played two Asian Champions League group games prior to the pandemic. "We have a hotel training centre almost, so we can be together. There was never a total lockdown of places, so there were always recommendations about the way to behave in order to keep ourselves safe and avoiding the possibility to spread the coronavirus. But never orders in terms of not allowing people to travel wherever they wanted. Even in Daegu, where we had more coronavirus cases, there was never a lockdown of the city in terms of no one from here is going anywhere.
"So, the people here were very cautious about the need to follow certain rules in order for the virus not to spread and for us to keep safe. Using masks, not a problem at all about social distancing. I think the behaviour was extraordinary in terms of creating good possibilities for the people to feel safe. We, as football players and as a group, and the conditions we had, allowed us to more or less be in a safe environment because the facilities were closed to the fans and public. During the whole week, we were training.
"We kept on going with our preparation and waiting for the situation to become normal and for the league to start. For the two weeks, we were more confident at the training ground. Players didn't go out too much, we stayed here. After the first two weeks, players were allowed to go home for one or two days but just to go home to their families and come back. Fortunately, we never had any coronavirus cases among us and not even among the families of the players or any other staff. We can say that we were happy and we did our life not normal, but in terms of being prepared, we were very lucky to have the possibility to be together at this training centre. The people here in the kitchen, maintenance, they made our lives really easy to life."
The K. League season will be a lot different in 2020, with the league reduced from 38 games to 27 fixtures and Morais – who dramatically led Jeonbuk to glory in his first season last year on a goals scored tie-breaker over Ulsan Hyundai – added: "The first thought is you need to take as much points as you can from the beginning. But it will be shorter for others also, so less games, means less opportunity to recover points.
"It means if you win a good advantage at the beginning, it can be enough for you to take advantage and secure the league in a better way. It also means the league will be tighter and if you don't win games in the beginning, it can be difficult to recover for teams losing. It's 11 games less and 11 games less means 33 points. It's a different scenario for sure. We have to be prepared and mentally tough."
With a lack of sport across the world, all eyes will be on the K. League which becomes the most significant football competition to start since the COVID-19 outbreak but Morais said: "There's no other pressure than the normal pressure. The responsibility of showing quality exists but it's the quality we have, so we can't show what we don’t have. We have good quality, so we should be happy to show what we have and play in a way that we will achieve our goals. It's obviously much more than just being worried about what we're showing to the people. I think the world will be interested to understand in what way they can go further after the pandemic.
"All the eyes in terms of trying to understand the kind of measures we need to adopt in order to keep the security and safety of all involved. I believe that there is no precedence. We don't know what will happen. We will do things that no one has done before. We will start the league in conditions that no one has before. We'll wear masks on the bench and off to avoid the spread of the virus. The players we will play without masks, so what will happen? No one is infected, so we hope that no one else will be infected in this case. We will play without supporters in the stadium, how will the broadcast be? The show will be the same. What kind of feeling will the people have in front of the TV? How they will broadcast in terms of giving a feeling that will please the people at home?
"There's a lot of interesting things. I'm also curious but I'm excited about what will happen, hoping the result will be positive, and everybody will be healthy and happy to watch football at home."