SHANGHAI, China, Aug 22 – The Chinese Super League permitted spectators on Saturday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, with former Chelsea star Oscar marking the occasion by hitting the winner.
In a significant development for football in China, where the virus emerged last year, up to 2,000 people were allowed to attend the clash in Suzhou between title rivals Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guoan.
SIPG captain Oscar seemed to relish having the limited number of fans back, the 60-million-euro Brazilian setting up his side’s equaliser before making it 2-1 with 14 minutes left.
Beijing’s beaten players unfurled a banner afterwards thanking their supporters, while Oscar blew kisses to the sparse crowd.
“Football without supporters is not football,” said SIPG’s Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira, whose side is unbeaten so far in the coronavirus-delayed season.
“We are very happy to offer a victory to our fans and I think they are happy at this moment.
“We fought in the game and we represented the club, the supporters, with our heart, with our spirit, and I am happy for them.”
Football chiefs in China plan to allow a restricted number of spectators at selected matches as part of a very gradual reopening.
However, fans must adhere to strict rules to prevent an outbreak of infections.
Beijing and SIPG fans were bussed to the stadium in Suzhou, had to pass a coronavirus test in the preceding week, and were sat one metre (three feet) apart.
Rules stated spectators had to wear face masks throughout, but officials appeared to have relaxed the policy given the 30-degree-Celsius (86 F) weather.
SIPG fans hung a banner in the arena reading: “Good to be together.”
They saw their side go behind on 14 minutes when French-born Congolese striker Cedric Bakambu struck for Beijing.
But Wang Shenchao levelled on 27 minutes when he headed in Oscar’s dangerous free kick, then former West Ham United striker Marko Arnautovic played in Oscar with a clever back-heel for the winner.
The CSL became one of the earliest sporting victims of the coronavirus when its February 22 start was indefinitely postponed.
The league finally began on July 25, behind closed doors and with players kept in two bio-secure “bubbles” in Suzhou, near Shanghai, and the northeastern city of Dalian.
The 16 teams have been split into two groups, one in each city.
Victory for SIPG saw them leapfrog Beijing to the top of the Suzhou group after six matches.
Reported coronavirus infections spiked in China in February but have since plummeted, allowing domestic sports to tentatively return.