THERE were no fans in the arena, not much in the way of chances and not many familiar players on show to the British football fan, but the beautiful game today returned in Korea – and that felt like a good thing.
With Jeonju World Cup Stadium sporting the "Stay Strong" message across its empty seats, opposition Suwon Bluewings players took to the field first – not being joined in the tunnel at close proximity by their opponents.
They then clapped home side Jeonbuk, last season's K-League champions, onto the field – and despite the lack of handshakes, the blood and thunder of competitive football was soon underway – with the winning goal coming from 41-year-old Lee Dong-gook.
Notwithstanding the unusual sight of non-playing staff having to adorn club-branded masks off the pitch, there was no awkwardness on it – as players revelled in finally being able to get their season underway.
The K-League was supposed to begin two months ago, but amid the coronavirus pandemic, the March start date was always going to be delayed.
But Korea has provided a shining example of how to cope with Covid-19 – with its testing capacity having limited them to just 256 fatalities.
All 1,100 K-League staff and players were able to be tested last week – with quick results – just six hours later every single one of them was cleared and the season was ready to commence.
In fact there had been some murmurings that the reason football's return was even delayed this long was because they felt they could get it on WITH fans in stadiums.
Such testing capacity feels a far cry from the United Kingdom's current situation – but appears to be what it'll take to get the show back on the road.
There is a growing feeling in Korea that following its successful return behind closed doors – that fan-filled K-League stadiums could be just around the corner.
As for the match itself, it wasn't quite the usual experience… but it was a good enough imitation given the situation.
In addition to the "Stay Strong" message, the cavernous empty stands featured flags and messages from fans… as well as sponsors.
The lonely TV commentator, clearly not actually at the stadium, seemed confused at times – but even this hesitation was heartening.
Instead of buzz phrases like "Project Restart" and "mass testing", suddenly we could discuss football, actual football.
Whether it was Doneil Henry's cross-field diagonals, or Murilo's scuttling runs down the left flank – it was a showcase of the beautiful game that the world has missed amid the panic and uncertainty of the last two months.
There was even VAR drama to groan about when the ball appeared to strike Henry's hand in the second half, remember such controversies? Simpler times.
Jeonbuk chants were played through booming speakers, but there was still the curious experience of hearing the shouts of the players, something that was supposed to be banned… a novel one given the usual ebb and flow of a pulsating full stadium.
Players still slapped each other's hands during substitutions, marking at set-pieces remained tight – despite the unusual spectacle off the pitch, the game itself on it was business as usual.
As for the outcome itself, Suwon were reduced to ten men with 15 minutes left when Aussie midfielder Terry Antonis was dismissed for a lunging challenge.
And Jeonbuk made them pay when veteran former Middlesbrough striker Lee headed home an 83rd minute corner – the match then finishing in a torrent of sticky rain amid an eerie silence.
Europe may not quite be ready to imitate the Koreans just yet, but the East Asian country today provided hope for what can come in time, with good preparation and planning.
It didn't quite possess the electricity of the Manchester Derby played at a raucous Old Trafford 61 days ago, but it was a start.
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