In the latest sign of Israeli life returning to semi-normalcy after months of lockdown, men’s professional soccer resumed Saturday night with three Premier League games, held in largely empty stadiums and under strict hygiene guidelines.
Maccabi Tel Aviv hosted Hapoel Haifa for a match in which it won 2-0; In Jerusalem, home team Beitar Jerusalem played against Hapoel Beersheba, with the teams ending at 1-1; and Hapoel Tel Aviv defeated host Maccabi Haifa 2-1.
Spectators were limited to close relations and press. All areas of the stadiums that players come in contact with, including the players’ benches, the stadium walkways, and dressing rooms, were thoroughly cleansed with disinfectant sprays to limit virus spread among players.
Saturday’s games were the first 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 throughout the season. 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 in 24 hours, the first time that the 100 mark was breached since May 2.
Top Health Ministry officials blamed the rising infections on the public’s “weakening” adherence to social-distancing guidelines.
On Saturday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the public of the need to continue to maintain social distancing and hygiene practices, and said lockdown measures could yet be reimposed if infections continue to rise.
The sharp rise has mainly been at schools, most of which were allowed to reopen earlier this month. The Health Ministry is considering once again sending some students to study from home.