Coronavirus outbreak: Foreign leagues shut down as precaution amid growing threat

Just how seriously the deadly coronavirus is being taken as a worldwide public health threat is evident in the drastic measures soccer leagues around the world have taken in recent days.

On Tuesday, Japan's J.League announced it has postponed all matches through March 15. The 2020 league season was slated to start on Friday.

To date, just 160 cases have been reported across Japan, but the source of the infections is unclear, and they are unrelated to an outbreak on a Japanese cruise ship that has claimed four lives.

“We are at the crossroads,” Shigeru Omi, head of the Japan Community Health Care Organization and a former regional director for the World Health Organization, told the Financial Times. “Local transmission is already going on.”

The J-League statement stressed how the league's cooperation with the Japanese government's efforts to contain the virus.

“Monday’s meeting of a government panel of medical experts declared that the next week or two will be a critical juncture in terms of whether the COVID-19 rapidly spreads or can be contained,” it said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon. “The J-League will therefore take maximum effort to prevent infection and spread of the disease, and will make arrangements to resume the domestic matches only by mid-March."

A spate of new cases outside China, notably Italy and South Korea, has raised concerns about the ability of authorities to contain the epidemic and led to a major selloff of global stocks on Monday.

On Monday, South Korean soccer authorities indefinitely postponed the start of the 2020 K League season, which was scheduled to start on March 6.

It came three days after the opening games of the season for Daegu FC and nearby Pohang Steelers were postponed. Daegu is the epicenter of South Korea's outbreak, one of the worst outside of China. There were reports of 231 new cases on Monday, bringing the total number to 833, along with seven deaths.

Inter Milan's Europa League match against Bulgaria's Ludogorets, scheduled for Thursday, will be played behind closed doors.

It's the latest match affected because of fears about the spread of coronavirus in Italy. Inter was one of four Serie A clubs whose home games on Sunday were postponed. In Milan, the center of Italian commerce, shops, restaurants and bars were largely empty on Monday.

A travel ban was imposed in an area south of Milan following the outbreak, which came after a man sought medical treatment at a hospital in Lombardy and is believed to have infected dozens of patients and medical staff, who then spread the virus. Again, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus isn't yet large in Italy, but they have been growing quickly -- 229, with at least six deaths, as of Monday.

Chinese officials have reported almost 80,000 cases and more than 2,500 deaths though the increase in the number of new cases and deaths has reportedly slowed.

The start of the Chinese Super League was postponed indefinitely, while both the men's and women's national team have been affected.

The early stages of the Asian Olympic women's qualifying tournament was shifted from Wuhan, where the outbreak began in China, to Australia. The Chinese women’s national team was forced to train in the corridors of its Brisbane hotel after being quarantined.

China qualified for the final round of qualifying but remains in Australia and is seeking to play the home leg of its series against South Korea in Australia.

The Chinese men’s national team has moved its 2022 World Cup qualifiers in March -- a home game against the Maldives and away game against Guam -- to Thailand, where they will be played behind closed doors.

The Centers for Disease Control announced 18 more cases in the United States on Monday, bringing the total infected to 53.

Photo: Xinhua/Imago/Icon Sportswire

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