Stuck in Spain, Wuhan soccer team gets to watch Madrid-Barça

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              Players of the Chinese Super League team Wuhan Zall arrive at the Atocha train station in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. The Chinese first-division soccer club from the city of Wuhan enters its second month in Spain without knowing when it will be able to return home. . It hasn't been easy for the nearly 50 members of the Wuhan Zall squad, but on Sunday they will get some reprieve from their ordeal by attending the Spanish league "clasico" between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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MADRID (AP) — It’s been a tough journey for the first-division soccer club from Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the virus outbreak in China.

The team came to Spain for preseason training and doesn’t know when it will be able to return home.

Players haven’t seen their relatives in more than two months. One of them lost a family member because of the virus.

Their arrival prompted fears among local residents in the midst of the rapidly spreading outbreak. They had to be repeatedly tested before concerns about their condition abated.

It hasn’t been easy for the nearly 50 members of the Wuhan Zall team, but on Sunday they will get some reprieve from their ordeal by attending the Spanish league “clásico” between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. The team will also tour the famed venue in Madrid on Monday.

“It’s really a well-deserved reward for them,” José González, the team’s Spanish coach, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “It will be an experience that without a doubt they will never forget. They have been training and training day after day, distracted by the situation back home, so it will be a nice break for them to watch a game like this between Real Madrid and Barcelona.”

The team will be at the Bernabéu on an invitation from Real Madrid and La Liga, which has a partnership with the Chinese Super League, the country’s main soccer competition. The league has been suspended because of the coronavirus and is not expected to resume until mid-April. Wuhan Zall was originally scheduled to stay in its preseason base in southern Spain until mid-February, just before the league’s planned start. Now it is expected to remain in the country at least until the end of March.

Other Chinese clubs are in a similar situation in countries like Thailand, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, though Wuhan Zall is actually based in the city at the center of the outbreak that has killed more than 2,800 people worldwide, most of them in China.

Wuhan Zall arrived in Spain at the end of January but previously practiced in the Chinese city of Guanghzou, nearly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away from Wuhan. Although the team was far from the initial outbreak, Spanish health authorities had to come out publicly to say there was no reason for local citizens to be concerned about the squad’s arrival. Three players arrived from China later and had to stay in quarantine and be tested for the virus before joining the rest of the group.

“The fear of the unknown obviously always exists,” González said. “I understood those who were reticent about the team coming to Spain. But with time it became clear that there was no problem with the team being here.”

González, a former striker who had played in China, said his focus has been to take the players’ minds away from the situation at home. Going to the “clásico” was one way of doing that, as was the decision to give them 10 days of vacation while in Spain.

“I honestly try to talk about the subject (virus) as little as possible,” he said. “Because they are already talking about it all the time, in their rooms, with their relatives back home. I don’t want to talk about it as well every time I see them. I try to make training as fun as possible so I can see them smiling a bit.”

González also has tried to schedule a couple of friendlies each week to keep the players motivated and not too bored with endless training sessions.

The Spanish coach said he was amazed with how the players have dealt with the situation.

“They have been training without knowing when the league will start again, coping with family problems back home,” he said. “It would be very easy to disconnect from your profession, very easy, but they have been giving a spectacular lesson of professionalism.

“Their attitude has been admirable,” he said. “I don’t think most of us would react the same way in a situation like this. They have been away from home for more than two months, they couldn’t enjoy Christmas with their families, they are talking to their relatives on the phone every day and seeing that they are locked at home and can’t live a normal life. That has to affect them psychologically.”

The 53-year-old González, who also played and coached at Málaga in Spain, said his experience with the Chinese club has been unique.

“You think that you’ve experienced almost everything in life over the years, but this case is special,” he said. “I keep learning from these players, about their behavior, about their way of dealing with this. It makes you think about the limits of the human capacity and about professionalism.”

About 14 players from his squad are originally from Wuhan, and the grandmother of one was among the deaths caused by the virus in the city.

“It brings you closer to the problem,” González said. “It was a very painful moment for everyone. But like everything in life, you have to try to move on. He couldn’t go back to Wuhan.”

Wuhan Zall will be playing in the Chinese first division for the second straight season. It finished sixth in the Super League last season. One of its international players is Portuguese defender Daniel Carriço, who joined from Spanish club Sevilla this month. Four of Wuhan Zall’s players are with China’s national team and will be leaving the training camp along with some staff members to play in a World Cup qualifying game.

The team will move from its original training facility near the southern coastal city of Málaga to the nearby tourist destination of Marbella. Last year, it had also spent its preseason near Málaga.

González said training conditions have been perfect in Spain, but he hopes the team will get to leave soon.

Just not before the Real Madrid-Barcelona match on Sunday, which will be the highlight of the team’s trip so far.

“For anyone who likes football, going to a ‘clásico’ is something very special,” González said. “Imagine what a great experience it will be. It will be a very special day.”