After a 238-day hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Super League returned on an emotional opening night for both players and fans.

Fittingly, the home team of Wuhan-the original epicenter of the epidemic in China-registered a victory in Saturday’s late kickoff to add extra poignancy to the occasion.

“We have waited for over five months since the postponement of the CSL season,” said Liu Yun after his goal helped Wuhan Zall to a 2-0 victory over Qingdao Huanghai in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

“Everyone tried their best after returning to the pitch. It’s been a very long preparation and it was hard for all of us.”

Earlier, Guangzhou Evergrande’s Wei Shihao netted the season’s first goals, with his double helping the defending champion to a 2-0 win over Shanghai Shenhua in Dalian, the league’s other hub city for the first phase of games.

“We haven’t played any official matches for too long. We trained a lot, so this is a result of our team’s joint efforts,” said Wei.

Before kickoff in both matches, short opening ceremonies with the theme of “Return, Mourn and Respect” were staged to honor victims of the coronavirus and to pay tribute to all the heroes who fought against the epidemic in China.

A minute’s silence was observed before players, coaches and referees placed their right thumbs on their hearts and turned to the stands, where representatives of professionals who have fought against the epidemic were guests of honor.

“I really want to thank all the people who supported Wuhan. The ceremony was not only for our team, it was for the entire city of Wuhan. My goal today is a gift to all our fans,” said Zall midfielder Liu.

Amid continuing vigilance against the virus, spectators will not be allowed to attend games for the forseeable future. However, the return of the CSL has deeply cheered fans and provided the Chinese public with another sign that normalcy is slowly returning to daily life.

According to Beijing Youth Daily, China Central Television reported that its main sports channel, CCTV5, was its second most-viewed channel during match time, while millions more watched via the CSL’s online broadcast partner, PP Sports.

The league’s belated kickoff was also warmly greeted on Chinese social media, with the topic “CSL returns” viewed over 56 millions times on Weibo by Sunday morning. Topics related to the theme of the CSL’s 2020 season were viewed over 71 million times.

“It was the joint efforts of the Chinese soccer community and numerous participants from other sectors to bring the CSL season back to us,” read a People’s Daily commentary.

“From Evergrande to Wuhan Zall, the ball returned to the pitch. Long time no see, CSL!”

Challenges ahead

With Dalian scrambling to snuff out a new outbreak of coronavirus cases, epidemic control and prevention measures have been stepped up for teams at their locked-down base in the port city.

“It’s not easy to have all the teams in the hotel for so many days,” Dalian Pro head coach Rafa Benitez told CGTN. “Now it’s more difficult because of COVID-19, but the commitment from the players and staff is really good.”

Meanwhile, Tianjin Teda’s Ghanaian striker Frank Acheampong has urged his fellow pros to strictly adhere to the rules.

“We have been preparing for a very long time, and everyone wished the league could start as soon as possible. As the epidemic prevention measures are excellent, I want to thank everyone who helped bring back the matches,” Acheampong told PP Sports.

“I can imagine this will be a very tough period during the lockdown. For me it’s challenging to cope with. Thanks to the Chinese Football Association, we can have the matches return smoothly… We are lucky to have games back during such a special time.

“As a player, I hope every other player and all staff involved follow the epidemic prevention regulations. Don’t cross any boundaries. It was not easy to bring back the league matches.

“We can’t afford to have the season suspended again due to somebody’s mistake. The outside world has high expectations of us here, so I hope we can continue the season well.”

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