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Japan suspends football over virus as Olympics loom

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Tokyo (AFP)

Japan suspended its football league on Tuesday, making it the latest sporting victim of the deadly coronavirus with just five months to go before the Tokyo Olympics.

All J-League and cup games were postponed until mid-March as Japan joined China and South Korea in putting domestic football on hold in a bid to stem the outbreak.

"J-League made a big decision over the spread of infections of the new coronavirus," the league's chairman Mitsuru Murai told a news conference.

"We have decided to postpone Levain Cup games scheduled for tomorrow and all the official games... scheduled until March 15."

On Monday, a medical panel advising Japan's government warned the coming weeks will be "critical" in preventing the outbreak from spreading out of control.

At least 156 people have tested positive for the virus in Japan, along with nearly 700 on a cruise ship that was quarantined off the country for two weeks.

Four people who fell ill on the ship have died. Domestically, Japan has reported one fatality linked to the virus.

Japan's tally is a fraction of the tens of thousands of cases and nearly 2,700 deaths seen in China, where the epidemic emerged in the central city of Wuhan.

But the advance of COVID-19 is raising concerns about the Tokyo Olympics, which are expected to attract millions of spectators and tourists.

Training for Olympic volunteers was suspended over the weekend, and Sunday's Tokyo marathon has been closed to all but elite runners.

- Pandemic fears -

Organisers have stressed it is far too early to consider changes to the two-week Games, which start on July 24 and involve tens of thousands of athletes, officials and volunteers.

"I think we are not yet reaching that point," Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said on Friday, when asked if there would be any changes to the Games schedule.

This month John Coates, head of the International Olympic Committee coordination commission, said there was no danger of the Games being cancelled or moved.

"The advice we have received from the World Health Organization (WHO) is that there is no case for a contingency plan to cancel or move the Games," Coates told reporters during a visit to Tokyo.

However, a surge in cases and deaths beyond China has fuelled fears about a potential pandemic, with more than 40 deaths reported globally.

On Monday, South Korea, the worst-hit country apart from China, postponed the start of the K-league season, while the Chinese Super League is also suspended.

South Korea also called off the table tennis world team championships, scheduled for Busan in March, on Tuesday over the outbreak.

And South Korean football teams FC Seoul and Ulsan Hyundai will play next week's games in the AFC Champions League, Asia's top club competition, behind closed doors.

Japan has three teams in the competition, but none of them is scheduled to play again until April.

The virus has decimated Asia's sporting calendar, with the Formula One Chinese Grand Prix and the Hong Kong Sevens rugby among the long list of postponements.

But the disruption has now spread further afield with Italy, which reported its seventh death on Monday, postponing a number of football matches, and playing others behind closed doors.

burs/th/qan

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