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Things seemed to be on the up at Chinese Super League club Wuhan Zall – until the coronavirus went and turned everything upside down.
The club nicknamed ‘The Nine-Headed Bird’ had their best ever season in 2019, but they have spent the first few weeks of 2020 in exile after their home city became the epicentre of an international crisis.
Zall were formed in 2009, months after predecessor club Wuhan Guanggu folded in bizarre circumstances. After a mid-match scuffle involving star man Li Weifeng, the Chinese FA banned Li and Beijing Guoan’s Lu Jiang for eight matches. This infuriated Guanggu to such an extent that they withdrew from the Chinese Super League, and were banned from ever re-entering the country’s league system.
Two promotions propelled Zall up to the Super League by 2013 – they even had a visit from David Beckham, who was invited to take a free-kick, in shirt and tie. Becks gave it a go, only to fall arse over elbow in front of the cameras.
The club’s spell in the top flight didn’t go much better: relegated in their first campaign, they spent the next five seasons in the second tier. Ciro Ferrara, once of Juventus, was among the managers unable to deliver success.
Things changed when the former Everton midfielder Li Tie arrived as boss, guiding the club to the second division title and then a sixth-placed finish in the Super League, aided by a squad including ex-QPR man Stephane Mbia.
But the club lost their talented manager in early January when Li Tie became the new coach of the Chinese national team. Then, the coronavirus changed everything.
The disease prevented the squad from returning home: they were in another part of China when the outbreak was announced, and the city was locked down. They travelled to a training camp in Spain, but Russian side Krasnodar and Gibraltar’s Europa Point both cancelled friendlies, despite none of the Chinese contingent showing signs of illness.
With the start of the Super League season postponed, it left both Zall and Rafa Benitez’s Dalian Yifang in limbo on the Costa del Sol – although Real Madrid did invite them as guests to watch last month’s El Clasico.
When they do return home, Wuhan Zall will find a very different city to the one they left behind.
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