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Beijing (AFP) – Fans will be allowed in as the coronavirus-delayed Chinese Super League season kicks off on Friday despite the country’s tight Covid controls, state media reported.

The season will finally take place three months later than usual in three neutral cities as China adheres to a strict zero-Covid strategy that has resulted in tens of millions of people being locked down in cities like business hub Shanghai.

Analysts had expected the Chinese Super League (CSL) season to start in empty stadiums, but organizers said spectators will be allowed at the opening game when defending champions Shandong Taishan play Zhejiang on June 3 in the southern city of Haikou.

“We hope to bring more confidence to the sports industry through our efforts,” the Xinhua News Agency reported on Saturday, citing CSL Chairman Liu Jun.

“In such special circumstances, the opening of the CSL is of great importance for the entire football industry.”

Liu said local authorities in the three host cities, the other two being Dalian on China’s east coast and Meizhou on the south, have made “great efforts” to ensure the Games are not disrupted by virus outbreaks.

Players and staff at CSL clubs were quarantined at their hotels for three weeks before being allowed to enter each city’s virus-proof bubble, Chinese media reported.

“The organizers also expect that the local governments of the three host cities will open important matches to fans,” Xinhua said, without saying how many fans would be allowed.

The CSL starts this season with 18 clubs but without Chongqing Liangjiang, which collapsed this month amid massive debts exacerbated by the pandemic.

The decline of Chongqing, where Jordi Cruyff ruled in 2018-2019, dealt another blow to the rapidly dwindling ambitions of China’s football fan president Xi Jinping.

It was the latest in a string of Chinese clubs to have been synonymous with lavish spending in recent years, including 2020 CSL champions Jiangsu Suning.

Although China successfully held the Winter Olympics in a closed bubble in Beijing in February, this month China withdrew from hosting the Hangzhou-sized Asian Games later this year.

The country then gave up as the next year’s Asian Cup hosts after spending billions of dollars building eight new stadiums and converting two more for the tournament.

The national team failed to reach this year’s World Cup in Qatar, having qualified only once in their history, namely in 2002, where they lost all three group matches without scoring a goal.

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