COVID-19: The Pandemic’s Effect on Korean Football Thus Far

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

In an ideal world, we, at the Tavern, would be recapping the KNT’s World Cup Qualifier against Turkmenistan right now. The Taegeuk Warriors would also be in first place in Group H of their qualifying group, and we’d also be previewing their upcoming match against Sri Lanka. The conversation would not be about whether the boys in red would be able to win, but rather by how much they would win. 

Unfortunately, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has turned upside down over the last month and will likely continue its “summersault” into June (bad pun, I know). As a result, the KNT’s June WC qualifiers against North Korea and Lebanon, respectively, have also been postponed.

The biggest question mark, however, regarding the effect of the pandemic on Korean football has undoubtedly been about the fate of this summer’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On March 24, the International Olympic Committee announced that they would be pushing the 32nd edition of the Olympiad to 2021, presumably in the summer. The U-23 KNT officially qualified for the Olympics tournament in men’s football after winning the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship last January.

Although the delay of the tournament provides U-23 head coach Kim Hak-bum more time to prepare on the drawing board, it also raises questions about age limits. Many of those on this year’s AFC title-winning team may be unable to compete in next year’s Olympics due to their overage status. Last Thursday, the KFA announced a collaborative effort with Football Federation Australia to urge the AFC, FIFA, and IOC to expand the under-23 age restriction to under-24.

As far as overage players are concerned, the postponement of this year’s Olympics also raises questions about age limit extensions for potential military exemptions. Per South Korean law, all South Korean male citizens must enlist in the military by the age of 28. All supposed candidates for overage player selections are 26: Kwon Chang-hoon, Jung Seung-hyun, and Gu Sung-yun. Granted an age limit extension is not permitted, all three players will face enormous pressure to win a medal next year.

For KCH, in particular, the situation looms increasingly momentous. SC Freiburg originally desired to sign the winger on a long-term contract but was unable to do so because of his lack of military exemption. Freiburg had to settle, instead, for a two-year contract that ends in June 2021. If KCH fails to win an Olympic medal, he will likely be forced to make a premature return to the K-League.

Matches have also halted domestically: last month, the K-League postponed all fixtures as a result of surging coronavirus cases in South Korea’s southeastern region. (The AFC Champions League has also been postponed indefinitely.) Last Friday, officials from each of South Korea’s 22 professional clubs agreed to gather next week to discuss a new kickoff date for K-League 1 and 2. From there, representatives from the top two divisions of Korean football are hoping to come to a consensus about the new start date and season length. 

Team officials will then need to submit their consensus to the K-League board of governors, which is made up of club presidents. One league official claimed that the board of governors could meet to make a final decision as soon as early April. Another claimed officials were looking to start the season on April 20. The start of the season will ultimately rely upon public sentiment and government measures over the next several weeks.

Fortunately, South Korea has been able to inhibit the growth of coronavirus cases within its borders without having to resort to a complete shutdown of public areas. Although South Korea currently has over 9,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, the total has mostly stagnated more than 30 days after the country’s 100th case. Through the early development of COVID-19 testing, South Korea was able to greatly limit the adverse effect of a potential pandemic back in January.

The recent efforts of South Korean health officials have not gone unnoticed. Recently, Director-General Tedros Adhanom of the World Health Organization lauded South Korea’s performance in combating the spread of COVID-19. Adhanom has urged other countries to “apply the lessons learned in [South] Korea” in their handling of the coronavirus. The best-case scenario for the K-League would be to start the season by late April or early May. It is looking more and more possible as the days go by.

The situation proves more ominous elsewhere. In England, there is no chance of any professional football being played until May, at the earliest. However, even May is optimistic considering the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK is projected to be ten weeks away. As of now, most matches in Europe have been postponed, and many leagues will likely have to conclude seasons without having played all scheduled matches. 

The situation abroad sparks questions for players like Ki Sung-yueng, whose contract with Mallorca expires at the end of the La Liga season on June 30. If leagues play matches into July, players may need to sign temporary contracts to return to their clubs and finish out domestic seasons. On a more positive note, a Premier League extension may open up the possibility of a return for Son Heung-min, initially out indefinitely due to an arm fracture.

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, the predicament for football around the world will grow increasingly unstable. This won’t be easy for some time, even after all of this dies down. I can only imagine all the time that football league officials will have to dedicate to tackling the many legal complications of shortened seasons and ruffled player contracts. Luckily, if you don’t work in the world of sports business or management, you won’t have to worry about impending shouting matches with lawyers in corporate boardrooms. 

As always, please stay safe and stay tuned for future updates regarding the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Korean football. 

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