Israeli men’s soccer is set to resume games on Saturday, with a limited number of teams squaring off in heavily disinfected stadiums that will remain devoid of fans for the rest of the season.
Six teams will vie for the championship in a playoff round, including two squads from Tel Aviv, two from Haifa, and one each from Beersheba and Jerusalem.
The opening game will see Maccabi Tel Aviv host Hapoel Haifa for a match starting at 8 p.m. At 8:45 p.m., Beitar Jerusalem will start play against Hapoel Beersheba, and at 9 p.m. Maccabi Haifa will play Hapoel Tel Aviv.
All areas of the stadiums that players come in contact with, including the players’ benches, the stadium walkways, and dressing rooms, will be thoroughly cleansed with disinfectant sprays to limit virus spread among players.
The stands will remain untouched and unused.
No games have been played since March 1, when the 26-game regular season was frozen.
At the time, attendance was up 25 percent over the previous season, and the league was poised to set a record of over two million fans in a season. Defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv is currently leading the league.
The break between games amounts to a lull of 90 days. The previous longest break in a season due to a crisis was 49 days in 1990-91 due to the Gulf War, the Ynet news site reported. In 1976-77, play was halted for 49 days while the national team was abroad in Asia.
The Premier League teams began full squad practice sessions on May 10 as virus restrictions eased, allowing players to train together without maintaining two-meter social distancing gaps between them, and with all of the team together on the field at the same time.
Players will live in home quarantine with their families. Any player to test positive for coronavirus will force teammates who came into contact with him over the previous 14 days to go into isolation.
Other countries, including South Korea and Germany, have resumed professional soccer games in empty stadiums.
The shutdown in global sports meant a big game for Israel’s national team was also postponed, likely until October.
The national team was to travel to Scotland for a 2020 European Championship playoff match on March 26. The Israel Football Association joined UEFA in 1994, and its teams enter European competitions because of political complications playing many Asian nations.
While Israel’s virus outbreak has slowed, allowing the country to ease lockdown restrictions, on Friday the Health Ministry reported a “significant” jump of 115 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, the first time that the 100 mark has been breached since May 2.
Top Health Ministry officials blamed the rising infections on the public’s “weakening” adherence to social-distancing guidelines.
At a press conference in Tel Aviv, the outgoing director-general of the ministry said the sharp rise was mainly at schools, most of which were allowed to reopen earlier this month. Top officials were to meet Saturday evening to decide on shutting down some schools.
The 115 new cases on Friday came after the ministry reported 79 new infections Thursday, following weeks in which new diagnoses had hovered at around 20 or less a day. That lull allowed Israel to relax most lockdown restrictions.
The number of active cases by Friday evening rose to 1,927, out of 16,887 total cases so far. The number of people in serious condition rose by two to 39, and patients on ventilators rose by one to 37. Meanwhile, 35 were in moderate condition with the rest seeing only mild symptoms.
As of Friday, 284 Israelis have died from the virus.
With recent weeks seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new virus cases, the country has lifted restrictions on movement, businesses and educational institutions.
Restaurants, pubs, hotels, pools and other establishments began opening up and hosting patrons Wednesday, after authorities gave the go-ahead to ease pandemic restrictions and allow some of the last businesses remaining shut to reopen.