By Alvaro Murillo
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Costa Rica became the first country in the Americas to restart their professional soccer league on Tuesday, with an afternoon game played behind closed doors and substitutes sitting in the stands to ensure their distance from others.
The Costa Rican league was suspended on March 15 but Guadalupe’s 1-0 victory over Limon was the first of six games due to be held across the Central American nation this week.
"It is difficult to get up to speed again," said Arturo Campos, scorer of Guadalupe’s winning goal. "We feel heavy, but we are happy to return."
Costa Rica has recorded just 866 cases of COVID-19 and only 10 fatalities, one of the best records in the region.
The country's 12 top clubs returned to training on May 15 and the league will kick off again with rules such as a ban on hugging, the deep cleaning of dressing rooms and a provision for five substitutes instead of three.
Tuesday’s game in Heredia, 10km (6 miles) north of the capital San Jose, was held behind closed doors and broadcast on local television. Only team members, broadcast media and match officials were allowed into the stadium.
Some clubs have sold "virtual tickets" to fans whose face is printed on a poster and placed on stadium seats. Others hope to create a live atmosphere with recordings of chants and songs.
"We know that soccer is an industry and that is why we coordinate everything with the authorities," Alejandro Sequeira, president of Professional Soccer Players Association, told Reuters.
"There was fear in March when we did not have protocols, but after two months we know how we can avoid infections. No player has even reported symptoms; now they are very encouraged and committed to sanitary measures to make this work."
The country’s incipient women’s league was declared void. A new league competition will begin on June 20.
(Reporting by Alvaro Murillo, writing by Andrew Downie; Editing by Stephen Coates)