Players of Tianjin Tianhai (in red) compete during the match against Jiangsu Suning in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, on Dec 1, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

The past six months have presented unprecedented challenges to Chinese Super League clubs trying to stay afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With no matches to play and revenue streams all but dried up, simply surviving has been the goal. Not everyone pulled through, with Tianjin Tianhai the biggest casualty of the shutdown when it disbanded and quit the league due to money woes in May.

Now, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel, with the return of the CSL on July 25 providing clubs with a much-needed lifeline.

“The pandemic has damaged the business promotion of the Chinese Super League and lots of business partners have been affected by the epidemic,” Liu Yi, the secretary-general of the Chinese Football Association, told media on Friday.

“But as we’ve changed the competition format, the exposure our business partners will receive will be much bigger than before. It’s good for the promotion. Also, because the matches will be held behind closed doors and the whole area will be under lockdown.”

The CSL season will begin with its 16 teams split into two groups, which will be based separately in Dalian, Liaoning province, and Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

Players and club staff will stay in designated match and living areas, which they will not be permitted to leave as part of the strict coronavirus safety measures.

In a shortened campaign, matches will be contested in a round-robin format followed by a knockout stage to decide the champion, AFC Champions League spots and relegation places.

“As long as there are matches, there is an economy,” Liu said. “The fans, who have been waiting for the return of the CSL for too long, now have the chance to release their passion toward soccer. Related consumption of things like beer and food will also help the economy to recover.”

In a first for the CSL, fans will not be not permitted to attend matches. In order to create a better atmosphere for television viewers, the CFA is installing an augmented reality system that will fill the empty stands with virtual spectators and fill the audio void with fan noises recorded in previous seasons and edited to fit different situations on the pitch.

To enhance the atmosphere for the players, goals will be accompanied by themed club videos on giant digital screens at stadiums, while a playlist featuring songs that fans have voted for will accompany teams as they step out onto the pitch and warm up before matches.

The CFA is confident these efforts will satisfy sponsors and help stimulate commercial activity during the season.

The governing body is also endeavoring to ensure playing games at the hub cities does not diminish exposure for investors in specific teams.

“Despite changing the competition format, we will still operate a ‘virtual home-and-away’ system,” added Liu. So for each match, stadiums will be decorated in the style of the ‘home’ team and its sponsors.

And while all of this is not quite business as usual, it’s a vast improvement on the gloomy mood that pervaded a few months ago when many clubs were fighting for their futures.

In May, a total of 11 teams were thrown out of next season’s pro leagues due to wage arrears. Another five clubs voluntarily quit the leagues due to money troubles, including Tianhai. However, now the outlook is also brightening for China’s smaller teams.

According to media reports, the CFA has been scouting for host cities to stage second-and third-tier league matches, as well as women’s games.

The country’s coronavirus vigilance means this is no easy task.

“To comply with epidemic prevention guidelines, details of every section of match planning needs to be rearranged,” said Liu. “And some sections have big changes.”

Despite the painstaking planning required to make the kickoff possible, teams are now just raring to get back on the pitch.

“The long-awaited 2020 CSL season will finally return,” said Guangzhou R&F goalkeeper Cheng Yuelei. “All of the Guangzhou R&F players are ready for the new challenge of the season. We hope we can have better results this year.”