You know the football season’s begun in right earnest when a coach is sacked after two wins, a police complaint filed against him for, among other things, selecting a playing XI on his own and a club wins promotion after a 10-game mini tournament. Mohammedan Sporting did all of the above to end a seven-year wait to return to the I-League top tier.
Another time, it would have been headline stuff in the context of the second division’s final round. But this being the first sporting event in India after the hard lockdown in March to combat Covid-19, it was the bio-secure bubble that became the talking point for the October 8-19 competition in Kolkata and Kalyani, nearly 60km away.
Five teams checked into the bubble created in a five-star Kolkata hotel at least 13 days before their first match, were isolated for four days after check-in, had daily health check-ups and were repeatedly tested for Covid-19 along with hotel staff, match officials and those who drove the team coaches.
“The day to day (activity) was a far cry from normality,” said Richard Hood coach of FC Bengaluru United, one of the five teams. “It was similar to the restrictions that we had imposed in our own bio-bubble in Bengaluru prior to arrival in Kolkata.”
Hood said the bubble had a ‘well-organised system’ with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) coordinating training sessions, meal timings and access to the gym to ensure physical distancing. The AIFF had shared a 13-page Standard Operating Protocol, drawn with inputs from the Asian Football Confederation and leagues that had started earlier, with the teams. It was a detailed document listing even the fine for not wearing a mask in a common area (lift, rooms’ alley and testing area) – ₹5000 for every infraction.
It wasn’t perfect. There were reports that a player had taken someone from outside the bubble into his room and a team official had stepped out of it. “There is little one can do to curb the ignorance, stubbornness or indifference of a person who chooses to violate the regulations and endanger others and themselves,” said Hood.
“There were a couple of cases where players breached the bubble and had to exit,” said Sunando Dhar, AIFF’s Leagues CEO. But they didn’t affect the competition and it has given AIFF the confidence to go ahead with the 11-team I-League in Kolkata, tentatively from December 26. In Covid season, the teams will meet each other once before the top six play for the championship and the bottom five for relegation, said Dhar. Also with 11 teams, the Indian Super League (ISL) will be held in Goa from November 20.
“Keeping the players in the bubble for so long will be a challenge. This was 25 days, the I-League will be 100 days; this was one hotel, I-League will have four hotels. Here, we conducted around 1200 RT-PCR tests (for Covid-19), in the I-League it will be between 8000 to 10,000. There will be more stadiums used, more practice grounds. But I also know we will be more prepared,” said Dhar. A bio-bubble app that will help monitor players’ health is likely to be in place before the I-League, he said.
On the final day of the second division qualifier, officials from Cricket Association of Bengal met representatives of the Indian Football Association which runs the sport in West Bengal. IFA had done the groundwork for AIFF to resume football.
Depends on desperation
So, if football can, why can’t other sport? “Events will start if there is a level of, if I can use the term, desperation,” said Charu Sharma, a former national diver and IPL franchise CEO and co-founder of the pro kabaddi league. Sharma’s comment came soon after Indian cricket board president Sourav Ganguly said the domestic season could start on January 1, 2021 and Athletics Federation of India (AFI) postponed a national competition scheduled for October 26-27 “concerned about the risk of exposure to Covid-19.”
Like Sharma, Mustafa Ghouse is a former sportsperson who is now CEO of JSW Sports Private Limited which has franchises in football, cricket and kabaddi leagues. “We’ve seen leagues and competitions the world over get back to a slow, but sure start. It’s down to the federations, organisers and stakeholders to put processes in place and resume competition (in India),” said Ghouse, a former Davis Cup player and Asian Games medallist.
Saying sport is a soft target in India because it is not part of India’s culture, Sharma advocated caution in resuming competition. “We’re a nation where it will be very difficult for an entire set of people to be that strict and that severe… Chances are that a bubble can be breached here a lot easier than less populous nations. I think we need to be aware of that and maybe be slower than other nations when it comes to opening up for sporting events,” he said.
“Unless we can guarantee a large spend on security or medical personnel, I don’t think we are an ideally suited country for creating bubbles,” he said. AIFF spent almost ₹1 crore on the bubble for the second division. Dhar said it overshot its final round budget by 125%.
(With inputs from Abhishek Paul)