China's Wuhan Zall set for emotional return as coronavirus-hit season starts

Wuhan Zall will make a poignant return to action when the delayed Chinese Super League season kicks off on Saturday, having endured 104 days in exile because of the coronavirus.

The central Chinese city was ground zero for the virus before it spread worldwide and its football club was locked out, stranded in Spain and then quarantined in southern China.

Wuhan itself was placed on a strict lockdown in January lasting more than two months and the team's Spanish coach said Friday he hopes his players can bring some cheer to their fans.

Zall, finally able to return to their virus-scarred city in April, play Qingdao Huanghai behind closed doors in Suzhou, one of two cities hosting matches in a revamped CSL season.

It is launching more than five months late after the campaign was postponed at the height of the health crisis in China.

"We'd like to give them a lot of happiness but... the situation doesn't allow it," Jose Gonzalez said of the fact games are behind closed doors at a neutral venue.

"We will try to make them happy remotely," the 53-year-old told an almost empty press conference in Suzhou, near Shanghai, part of measures to contain the virus.

CSL teams have been through a long and uncertain pre-season that has dragged on for over six months.

And as part of strict Chinese Football Association measures to prevent any virus infections, all players, coaching staff and referees will spend the next two months living in hotels.

They cannot meet their families and aside from their hotels, will see only stadiums and training pitches.

Gonzalez, who took on the Wuhan job in January when his predecessor Li Tie became coach of China, said his men were looking forward to getting on the pitch at last.

"I imagine it's the same situation for all players in the Chinese league -- they have a lot of desire to play and enjoy their job, competing against strong rivals," said the former Malaga boss.

"This has been a special year. They've been training for many months, but the moment they have all been waiting for has finally arrived."

As part of a revamped competition this year because of the pandemic, the 16 CSL teams have been split into two groups, one playing in Suzhou and the other in the northeastern city of Dalian.

Football officials called an emergency meeting late Wednesday after a small cluster of coronavirus cases emerged in Dalian, which has been placed in a "war-time mode".

Fabio Cannavaro's reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande will kick off the season in Dalian on Saturday against FA Cup winners Shanghai Shenhua.

That will be followed immediately by Zall against Qingdao in Suzhou.

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