With nagging concerns about coronavirus sweeping through teams and players scattered across the world, unable or hesitant to return, China is finding that restarting football is no simple matter.
The problems faced by China, one of the first countries to suspend football and the epicentre of the pandemic, could be a glimpse into the future for other leagues called off around the world.
The Chinese Super League (CSL) was a harbinger of the collapse of global sport when officials announced in January that the February 22 start date had been indefinitely postponed.
Last week there were claims that with the peak of coronavirus – which emerged in China in December – seemingly over in the country, the CSL could start on April 18. May 2 was also mentioned.
But then came the first confirmed coronavirus case in Chinese football, a Brazilian in the second tier, one of a wave of imported cases that has put China on alert for a second virus emergency.
And on Sunday former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini, now with Shandong Luneng, said he had tested positive, becoming the first known case in the CSL.
On Thursday the respected Soccer News said the season has now been pushed back to late May or early June.
However, tough government restrictions announced later Thursday that partially seal off China, reducing international flights and barring foreigners, throw even those dates into question.
Suggestions that basketball, the other major sport in China, could restart in early April have also fizzled out, dealing a blow to government attempts to portray China as getting back to normal.
“If more cases occur in the future, the date of the Chinese Super League restart will be postponed again,” Soccer News warned.
Both Fellaini – one of the biggest names in Chinese football – and Brazilian forward Dorielton tested positive for the coronavirus after returning from abroad.
– Bakambu’s baby dilemma –
Foreign leagues suspended by coronavirus will be watching how the CSL fares in getting off the ground, but the lingering threat of infections is not the only barrier.
Chinese teams are training for the new campaign but numerous foreign players and coaches are still in their home nations and face being locked out the country.
Shandong Luneng’s Marouane Fellaini of Belgium is the first known coronavirus case in the CSL
Late Thursday, China slashed the number of international flights and said that even foreigners with valid visas and resident permits will be blocked from entering after midnight Saturday.
Some of the CSL’s most expensive players, including the Brazilians Oscar, Hulk and Paulinho, face a race against time.
With global travel badly disrupted, wealthier clubs could charter planes to fetch their foreign stars. But it appears inevitable that some will miss the Saturday deadline.
Those that do return will then need to go into isolation for a fortnight in case they are infected, adding another delay.
They would then need time to get fit for the rigours of a condensed campaign.
Congolese striker Cedric Bakambu gave an insight into the dilemmas players confront balancing their professional and personal obligations at a worrying time.
The 28-year-old has been ordered back to CSL runners-up Beijing Guoan, which would mean leaving his heavily pregnant wife behind in France.
Bakambu said that even though China is now considered safer than Europe, overseas players in China face the prospect of not seeing their families for several months if they go back – he risks missing the birth of his second child.
“Knowing that I must leave without knowing when I can come back to see my son and my wife, who is due to give birth in a month, this is what is most difficult to live with,” he told L’Equipe.