AP — The Israeli Premier League is set to resume on May 30 with a title race and renewed popularity among fans.
No games have been played since March 1 when the 26-game regular season ended with crowds up 25 percent over last year, and the league poised to set a record of over two million total attendees in a season.
Defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv accounted for much of the increase, drawing more than 20,000 fans per game to the renovated Bloomfield Stadium shared with two other top-tier teams.
“That was a huge contribution, and because it was a very competitive season,” league vice president Motty Bronshtein told The Associated Press on Friday. “Once it stopped, everyone was craving for it to come back.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv is unbeaten and leads Maccabi Haifa by six points as the league splits into a six-team championship group and eight-team relegation group.
The 10-round championship tournament could not start before Israel’s government shut down sports on March 13 — days after the first empty-stadium game as soccer tried to keep going during the outbreak.
“Thirty-thousand fans got the cancellation a few hours prior to the game,” Bronshtein said of a March 9 national cup quarterfinal between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
The shutdown in global sports meant a big game for Israel’s national team was also postponed, likely until October.
Israel was to travel to Scotland for a 2020 European Championship playoff 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.
The rest of Israel’s season will play out in empty stadiums, as in South Korea, Germany and other countries restarting games this month.
Players will live in home quarantine with their families, and any positive test for coronavirus will see teammates in contact for the 14 previous days go into isolation.
Any competitive soccer is a win for fans who joined a “Bring Back Our Football” campaign on social media.
“This decision brings back some normality to our lives and allows the Israeli public some respite from many weeks of isolation and anxiety,” said Erez Halfon, chairman of the Israeli Professional Football League.
Halfon, once a close aide to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, said the decision to restart went beyond protecting the game’s financial stability. Clubs are seeking talks with the government about financial aid.
“Generally, the clubs are thrilled. Because no one believed that football would be back,” Bronshtein said.
The league’s broadcasting deal is worth NIS 127 million ($36 million) each year from a pay-TV operator which sub-licenses games.
“It’s important for us to keep our broadcasters happy. They pay us a very fair amount,” Bronshtein said, adding this season was already paid for.
The league’s title sponsor, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, is also supportive, he said.
As one of the first leagues set to resume among UEFA members, Israel also wants to beat the August 3 target to complete domestic seasons.
No one, Bronshtein said, wants to be playing on the hot August evenings.