By Michael Church
HONG KONG, March 27 (Reuters) - Hopes that a start to the new Chinese Super League season was on the horizon suffered a significant blow, with the government's ban on foreigners entering the country likely to prevent the return of many of the league's leading players.
The foreign ministry announced entry visas issued to foreigners would be suspended from midnight on Friday in a move to slow the spread of the virus through imported cases.
"In view of the rapid spread of the new coronavirus epidemic worldwide, China has decided to temporarily suspend entry of foreigners with currently valid visas and residence permits in China," the ministry said.
"This is an interim measure that China has to take in order to respond to the current epidemic situation, with reference to the practice of many countries.
"The Chinese side will adjust the above measures according to the epidemic situation through separate announcements."
Speculation had begun to grow that the CSL's new season, which was originally scheduled to kick off on Feb. 22, would begin in late April or early May as a result of a slowdown in infections across China.
But, while all 16 of the CSL clubs have returned from prolonged overseas training camps, many of the foreign stars lured to the league in recent seasons have yet to set foot in China this year.
Chinese media reported Brazilian duo Paulino and Anderson Talisca, who were influential as Guangzhou Evergrande reclaimed the title last season, remain outside the country as do Beijing Guaon trio Renato Augusto, Jonathan Viera and Cedric Bakambu.
With a reduction in the number of flights going into China, players travelling from overseas were already having to take circuitous routes to report to their clubs as preparations slowly built up for the anticipated start to the season.
Israeli striker Eran Zahavi, who scored a record 29 times in last year's CSL for Guangzhou R&F, flew with teammate Dia Saba on a private charter flight, although Dusko Tosic, another of the club's foreign players, remains in his native Serbia, according to Chinese media.
Former Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini became the first CSL player to return a positive test for the virus upon his arrival in China last weekend, and the Belgian is currently in the middle of 14 days of quarantine.
Coaches such as Guangzhou Evergrande's Fabio Cannavaro and Vitor Pereira at Shanghai SIPG are already in quarantine and should be ready to start working directly with their players in the coming days.
Pereira will be hoping his three Brazilian players, former Chelsea star Oscar as well as Hulk and Ricardo Lopes make it back, with their return scheduled for Friday.
But, with the expected absence of several key players coming after others - including Manchester United's Odion Ighalo and Yannick Carrasco of Atletico Madrid - chose to resume their careers to Europe, the CSL's sheen and its hopes for an impending resumption appear to be diminished. (Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Kim Coghill)