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COVID-19 condemns Chinese football to endless pre-season

Guangzhou R&F head coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst conducts a squad session last week as Chinese Super League clubs enter a fifth month of pre-season training because of the coronavirus © AFP/File / STR

SHANGHAI, China, Apr 30Many footballers dread the rigours of pre-season training but in China they could be forgiven for hating it by now as stop-start preparations drag into a fifth month because of the coronavirus.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) was one of the earliest sporting victims of the pandemic with the February 22 start date indefinitely postponed in January.

The CSL could now begin in late June or early July but the uncertainty has left teams at all three levels of professional football treading water since the start of the year.

“Everyone was expecting the season would start at the end of February but now we don’t know exactly when it will begin,” AC Milan legend Roberto Donadoni, coach of second-division Shenzhen FC, told AFP in a recent interview.

“This is the biggest problem for me and everybody because when you know the exact start date, you put your focus on this day.”

The never-ending pre-season — punctuated by short holidays and periods of quarantine — is the opposite of the problem facing clubs in Europe.

Leagues suspended there because of the outbreak are racing to restart but there are concerns players will not have enough time to get properly fit after weeks locked down.

CSL side Shanghai Shenhua are into a third phase of preparations at home after spells on the island of Hainan then Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the UAE.

Coach Choi Kang-Hee said that the fitness his players built up in the UAE in February and March had been lost.

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“Unfortunately, because of the epidemic, both the AFC Champions League and the Super League have been postponed repeatedly,” the South Korean said, according to the Oriental Sports Daily.

“So far there is still no exact start time and the players have to face the prospect of only practising, not playing (competitive matches).

“After returning to China we first had a two-week quarantine period, and then two weeks of rest.

“We are now almost starting everything from scratch again.”

For his players, the season cannot come soon enough.

“It’s not just me. All the players here are ready for matches,” veteran international defender Feng Xiaoting told state media.

– ‘Difficult time’ –

Last season’s CSL runners-up Beijing Guoan have been in Spain, South Korea and Thailand since January. They are now back in China.

They squeezed in one competitive match, a 1-0 win at Thailand’s Chiangrai United in February in the AFC Champions League, but that tournament also ground to a halt.

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Guoan’s preparations are now hampered by the absence of their French coach Bruno Genesio and the team’s foreign stars, among them Brazilian international Renato Augusto.

Shenhua and many other teams are similarly missing their foreign players, locked out of China because of entry restrictions designed to stop imported virus infections.

Authorities have not said when the borders will be reopened to foreigners.

Guoan last week ended a training camp in the city of Kunming and the players will spend the next fortnight in isolation in Beijing, before embarking on more preparation.

“During the epidemic the team has faced many difficulties,” captain Yu Dabao told the Beijing News.

“But the team still maintains high-quality, high-intensity training, which shows that it is together and very united in difficult situations.

“We have spent a difficult time together.”

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