by Peter STEBBINGS / AFP
After repeated postponements stretching back more than a year because of the coronavirus, South Korea and China’s women’s football teams will finally meet Thursday for a last-ditch spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
The first leg takes place in Goyang, South Korea, and the return fixture is on April 13 in the Chinese city of Suzhou, with a place in this summer’s delayed 2020 Games up for grabs.
The Olympic qualifier was first scheduled for March last year but became an early victim of the pandemic, and has been postponed three times.
When the Asian rivals belatedly clash they will do so with the coronavirus still hanging heavy over the tie.
The Chinese squad landed in South Korea this week dressed in full protective bodysuits, complete with goggles, gloves and masks.
And while the first leg at Goyang Stadium, near Seoul, is open to some spectators, the limited number of fans allowed in have been told not to eat or shout in an attempt to contain infections.
It is a taste of what could lie ahead for the team which reaches the Olympics, which have been pushed back to July-August because of the coronavirus.
There are only two berths left at Tokyo in the women’s football, with Cameroon facing Chile for the other.
China hope it will be a victorious final chapter in a tortuous journey to Tokyo which began in Wuhan, ground zero of the pandemic.
The squad were training in Wuhan for an Olympic qualifying tournament scheduled to be held there in February last year, but the competition was moved to Nanjing, then Sydney, as the coronavirus took hold.
The team left Wuhan a day before it went into the world’s first virus lockdown on January 23.
They flew to Australia but were forced to quarantine in a hotel, where they were pictured doing stretches in a corridor. Their predicament made headlines because such measures were rare then.
When they finally got out, Jia Xiuquan’s side — missing star player Wang Shuang, who was stuck in Wuhan — won twice and drew once.
With China then at the centre of the coronavirus, the team became a defiant symbol back home, meaning there is more interest than normal in how they fare against the Koreans.
History beckons for South Korea, who have never qualified for the Olympics since women’s football was first included at Atlanta 1996, where China were beaten by hosts the United States in the final.
The Chinese women are now 15th in the FIFA rankings, three places above their opponents.
Experienced Korean defender Kim Hye-ri said it was a relief to get the game on finally.
“Such a great opportunity will never come again,” she said.
“We’ve suffered tremendously from our failure to advance to (past) Olympics.
“I really want to be able to smile this time.”