Kyle Bonn

South Korean soccer league season set to kick off on May 8

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SEOUL, South Korea — Players, coaches and fans have two weeks to get used to new rules around soccer in South Korea after the K-League announced Friday that the delayed season will kick off on May 8.

Jeonbuk Motors will take on Suwon Bluewings in the opening game, which was originally scheduled for Feb. 29.

The league was suspended when South Korea went into lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, and players have recently returned to training and started playing practice games this week.

There have been more than 10,700 cases of COVID-19 in South Korea, and 240 deaths according to a tally compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Restrictions are gradually being lifted and new daily cases of the coronavirus have dropped to single digits this week in South Korea after peaking in February, but not enough to allow fans to attend games at the start of the season.

The league is also imposing strict social-distancing regulations for players on and off the field. On the field, it apparently means players can’t even converse with teammates or officials during games, and definitely no shaking hands.

“Things like not spitting during the game, we can do no problem but not talking to teammates is impossible,” Incheon United captain Kim Do-hyeok told reporters after a practice game. The interviews took place on the field rather than in the usual mixed zone inside the stadium. “If we can’t have conversations on the field, we may as well not play soccer at all.”

Kim is hoping spectators will be soon back in the stadiums cheering on the 10 teams in Asia’s oldest professional league. The Korean baseball league has also started pre-season games and is set for opening day on May 5, also in empty stadiums.

Sports leagues and events in most parts of the world have been shuttered during the pandemic.

“It would be great to play in front of fans, but if we all play our part in stopping the spread of the virus then they will soon be back in their seats,” Kim said.

Coaches are having to adapt, too. Suwon coach Kim Do-gyun had issues trying to communicate with his players while wearing a mask.

“It’s true that it is uncomfortable when you are trying to give instructions during the game,” Kim said. “At the moment, however, these are things that you have to do.”

FIFA to release $150 million in cash reserves to help during coronavirus shutdown

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino unveiled a financial assistance plan to help member associations weather the storm during the coronavirus shutdown.

The football governing body, which infamously has $2.7 billion in cash reserves, announced that each member association will receive $500,000 in cash to begin offsetting the massive financial hit of the coronavirus pandemic. With leagues shut down all over the world, teams are being forced to pay players and staff with little to no sponsorship or gate income.

“The pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges for the entire football community and, as the world governing body, it is FIFA’s duty to be there and support the ones that are facing acute needs,” Infantino said in a statement released by FIFA on Friday. “This starts by providing immediate financial assistance to our member associations, many of which are experiencing severe financial distress.

“This is the first step of a far-reaching financial relief plan we are developing to respond to the emergency across the whole football community. Together with our stakeholders, we are we assessing the losses and we are working on the most appropriate and effective tools to implement the other stages of this relief plan.”

As part of the plan, FIFA is also advancing its regular operational costs payments to member associations, which is usually paid in July. It is also releasing these funds without necessitating fulfillment of its specific regulations.

After calling this move a “first step,” Infantino did not detail what the next steps in the financial assistance plan are, nor did he state there would be more action taken other than the aforementioned inference. Clearly FIFA is capable of doing much more to help, but this move is a healthy start to assist smaller leagues and clubs with less spending power survive the outbreak.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Chelsea monitoring Aubameyang, Coutinho to Everton

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A pair of high-profile transfers are being discussed in Premier League circles as another week of the coronavirus shutdown comes to a close.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract situation at Arsenal has been a hot-button topic of late, given the amount of uncertainty surrounding his future with the club. Aubameyang is scoring in bunches at Arsenal, one of the few bright spots for the Gunners this season, bagging 17 goals in 26 Premier League appearances so far this campaign before the shutdown. That has demand for his services high, and with his contract expiring in the summer of 2021, Arsenal has to make a decision fast on his future to avoid his value plummeting or even worse, him leaving on a free transfer.

While contract extension talks are rumored to begin in the summer, there’s not much wiggle room and Arsenal could find themselves looking to sell if things don’t go as planned. According to a report by ESPN FC senior writer James Olley, Chelsea has kept tabs on Aubameyang’s contract situation and could be among the litany of clubs that make a play if the Gunners can’t come to terms with the Gabon international.

The Blues have been extremely public about their search for a striker with talismanic frontman Tammy Abraham injured, despite the presence of Olivier Giroud and Michy Batshuayi. They courted a number of strikers this past winter, including Lyon lead man Moussa Dembele, then-AC Milan goalscorer Krzysztof Piatek, and Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic. They are reportedly in for Dembele this summer as well, but at 23 years old and with three seasons remaining on his contract, he could be a pricey addition compared to Aubameyang who is peaking late and in a much more flexible contract situation.

Olley’s report reinforces the understandable belief that Arsenal could use a sale of Aubameyang to finance a club overhaul given that the Gunners have not made the Champions League in some time, with club executives repeatedly drumming the narrative that missing Europe’s top competition is affecting their bottom line. Could Aubameyang be enticed by a move across London rather than across country borders? Chelsea will likely have to contend with a number of other suitors, reportedly including Barcelona and Inter Milan.

According to Spanish outlet Sport, Barcelona and Everton have forged a good relationship over the past few years and that is set to pay off as the Toffees now appear to be leading the chase for the Brazilian playmaker. While Coutinho flopped hard at Barcelona since joining from Liverpool in 2018, he has recovered some of his value on loan at Bayern Munich this season. Still, it appears that Bayern do not wish to make the deal permanent and Barcelona wishes to move on, opening an opportunity. Enter Everton, who surprisingly has reportedly jockeyed into a lead role for the former Liverpool star.

The report states that Everton would take Coutinho on a loan with an obligation to buy. The two clubs have done deals in the recent past, with Andre Gomes, Yerry Mina and Lucas Digne all heading to Merseyside in recent years. In addition, Coutinho would have a Brazilian international to work with up front in Richarlison, which could add intrigue to the deal for Coutinho.

Sport says that while Barcelona hopes to recover the $97 million they paid for Coutinho over two years ago, the club understands that in the current climate that may not be possible, and therefore could potentially lower their price to as low as $81 million. The report also mentions that Liverpool is uninterested in bringing Coutinho back to Anfield, paving the way for Coutinho’s ultimate heel-turn for Reds fans.

Eredivisie cancels 2019-20 season, does not declare champion

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The Dutch top flight has officially announced the cancellation of its 2019-20 season, declaring that no champion will be crowned. The decision comes three days after the Netherlands government banned all sports through September due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The league also announced that there will be no promotion or relegation this season, meaning that teams in danger of the drop – namely ADO Den Haag (managed by Alan Pardew) and RKC Waalwijk – will remain in the top flight, while clubs in the running for promotion such as Cambuur, Volendam, De Graafschap, and NAC Breda will miss out.

The KNVB announced the decision on Friday after a vote by all the clubs in the league. The KNVB also confirmed that increasing the size of the league to 20 teams – essentially, accommodating promotion but not relegation – was not considered as a viable option in the proceedings. In the wake of the government’s decision, teams had announced their reluctant support for the abandonment of the season, with Ajax posting a statement declaring the situation “regrettable” but “inevitable” as “the interest of public health predominates all else.”

The decision not to crown a champion comes with Ajax leading the table on goal difference over AZ Alkmaar, with both teams level on 56 points. Ajax had led the entire way, but all five of their league losses had come from December 6 on, allowing AZ back in the race.

On Thursday, UEFA announced that while they can make special accommodations for leagues that see their hands forced by government decisions, they still strongly advise countries to finish their domestic seasons. UEFA also said that “in an ideal scenario” qualification for the Champions League and Europa League will come “on sporting merit,” leaving the Champions League status of clubs like Ajax and AZ Alkmaar in limbo.

ePremier League: Jota, Alexander-Arnold, Sterling through to semis

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The cream of the crop is beginning to truly shine through in the ePremier League tournament.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, Diogo Jota, Raheem Sterling, and Dwight McNeill all advanced their teams through to the semifinals, some in dominating fashion, as Liverpool, Wolves, Manchester City, and Burnley are left standing as the last four remaining sides.

Alexander-Arnold was first up on Friday, and he had no troubles with Christian Atsu of Newcastle, winning 4-1 to open the quarterfinal action. He fell behind 1-0 as Atsu took the lead through a goal from Allan Saint-Maximin, but Alexander-Arnold used a brace from Roberto Firmino to lead the comeback charge. Up 2-1 at halftime on goals by Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum, he tacked on two more after the break as Mohamed Salah found the back of the net and Firmino grabbed his second. Salah’s was the backbreaker, putting Liverpool 3-1 up on a cross from Sadio Mane in the 66th minute.

After Liverpool booked its place in the semis, Diogo Jota brought Wolves into the mix as he obliterated Lys Mousset of Sheffield United 5-2. He produced a brilliant display, including a brace by his own virtual character. Jota’s second was a Goal of the Tournament candidate, putting the icing on the cake with a brutal, slightly disrespectful chip of Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson to cap off a delicious set of passes in midfield to spring the break.

A big moment in the game was a dramatic own-goal after Wolves hit the post, the ball unluckily came back to the feet of a Sheffield defender charging back, whose momentum carried himself into the net to put Wolves 2-1 up. Mousset would eventually equalize at 2-2, but Jota took charge from there in the second half. Jota has been a dominating force in this tournament, obliterating Wilfried Ndidi 8-2 in the opening round before his takedown of Mousset in the quarters.

Raheem Sterling booked Manchester City’s place in the semifinals after a 4-2 victory over Everton’s Andre Gomes which can be tabbed as the closest match of the quarterfinals. Sterling used a virtual hat-trick from superstar Sergio Aguero to see his way through, with Kevin de Bruyne scoring the other. Everton got a pair of goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson, but it wasn’t enough as Gomes came close, but couldn’t find the final touch.

The game was in doubt with 10 minutes to go, as Sterling led 3-2 and Gomes saw a chaotic spell end with the ball cleared off the line, ending the threat of equalizing and allowing Sterling to go on and claim the match with Aguero’s hat-trick late on.

Finally, Burnley passed a tough test as the last semifinal team with McNeill grabbing a golden goal from Jay Rodriguez to defeat Brighton & Hove Albion’s Neil Maupay 1-0. It seems that not even the coronavirus can stop Burnley, with the Clarets in form on the field headed into the league shutdown, but they continue to roll virtually in the ePremier League tournament.

The game took over 120 minutes to complete, with nothing to separate the sides after 90 minutes of regulation, and a game went to golden goal for the first time this tournament. In the restarted match, Brighton nearly went through on a free-kick with Maupay over the ball, but he just missed the top-right corner with the effort from right outside the box. After a defensive masterclass by both sides, Maupay admitted a mistake in bringing his center-back up too high in the 60th minute of the restarted match, and that allowed McNeill to complete a set of passes through the top of the box for Rodriguez to finish it off.

In the semifinals on Saturday, Liverpool and Manchester City will square off as Raheem Sterling takes on his old club, up against Trent Alexander-Arnold. In the other matchup, Jota and Wolves will meet McNeill and Burnley.