Coronavirus-free Tajikistan to begin football season

Tajikistan's domestic football season is kicking off on schedule despite almost every other soccer league around the world having ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The clubs in the landlocked central Asian country of nine million people are largely unknown, even among the world's most ardent football fans.

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Champions Istiklol came from a goal down to beat Khujand 2-1 to win their ninth Tajik Super Cup in a match played without any fans in attendance.

Soccer has survived in only a few countries around the world with matches from lesser-known leagues in Belarus, Nicaragua and Burundi helping fans to break their boredom.

The World Health Organisation has warned that people should avoid crowds, even in Tajikistan which has not announced a single case of coronavirus infection.

"You know that the championships are stopped in almost all countries because of the coronavirus pandemic," Istiklol manager Vitaliy Levchenko said in a news conference on Friday.

"Thank God, there is no coronavirus in Tajikistan and the new football season begins in the country."

The coaches of both teams defended the Tajik federation's decision for the Super Cup to be played without spectators.

"I believe that playing in empty stands should not affect the match," Levchenko added.

"I would like to appeal to the fans so that they have patience. At least the championship starts here, and in other countries the fans are completely deprived of football."

Istiklol won a domestic treble in 2019 and became the first club to win six Tajik League titles in a row.

Tajikistan, whose national sport is gushtigiri, a form of traditional wrestling, have never reached a World Cup or Asian Cup finals. Their best achievement came in 2006 when they won the Asian Challenge Cup, an emerging countries competition.

No Tajik club have reached the Asian Champions League group stages either, with Istiklol beaten by Saudi Arabia's Al-Ahli in the competition's West Region playoff round in January.

The 10-team league kicks off on Sunday with three games, which will also be played behind closed doors. The clubs will rely on 42 foreign players, with neighbouring Uzbekistan topping the list with 20 imports followed by Ghana with 10.

"My soul is anxious, I worry bout my compatriots, my family and my relatives," Khujand's Uzbek keeper Mamur Ikramov said. "You know that there are 205 coronavirus cases in Uzbekistan."