The latest directive from the Indian government to call off all sporting events and camps until April 15 in view of the COVID-19 pandemic has put the fate of the I-League in doubt. While Mohun Bagan has already won the League, there is still a lot at stake especially for clubs at the bottom of the table.
With 23 matches, including the Kolkata derby, to be played, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has adopted a wait-and-watch approach before taking a call on the future of the season.
The clubs, however, are in a quandary and are not on the same page while deciding on the future of the League.
The 2018-19 champion Chennai City FC’s domestic players were sent home earlier this week, while its foreign players are under self-isolation at the club’s home base in Coimbatore. “I am hoping the foreign players can also fly home this week,” said club owner Rohit Ramesh. Chennai City is currently placed seventh in the table with 21 points from 16 matches.
The side's AFC Cup group stage matches, too, have been postponed until June. Considering the several logistical issues in hand, Rohit is hoping the Federation calls off ongoing season instead of a looking at a delayed restart.
“Completing the rest of the fixtures in May-June will have logistical implications with respect to cost of hotels, travel, etc. Our expense will go for a toss. And players will want to stay with their families during this time and their health is more critical. I hope the AIFF consults with the AFC to arrive at a decision,” he said.
However, his opinion isn’t shared by other other other club owners. V.C. Praveen, owner of Gokulam Kerala FC, is hopeful of the league's restart in May.
“Things have improved but I am not sure what the future holds. If the league resumes in the first week of May, we will be able to finish the season. We only have 15-20 matches  to play,” said Praveen. Sixth-placed Gokulam has 22 points from 15 games and is in the hunt for a second-place finish.
Kerala was the first state in the country to record a positive case for coronavirus and the club is taking efforts to ensure the safety of its players by placing them in quarantine at the club facility in Kozhikode.
Aizawl FC players were in Punjab for a closed-door match against Punjab FC when the first government directive led to the suspension of the league. “On our return, the state government had asked us to put the players and staff under self-isolation for 13 days,” says Robert Royte, Aizawl FC's owner.
The club is currently occupying the relegation position with five matches left to play. “I am keen for the season to be completed. We have four home matches left and I am hopeful of a top-five finish. But now, the coronavirus situation is more important than football.”
East Bengal has used this period to offer the players a mid-season break until March 31. Debabrata Sarkar, a senior official at the club, isn’t looking beyond April 15 and is hopeful of an end to the season. With its arch-rival having romped its way to the title, East Bengal, joint-second in the table, has only pride to play for with a win over Bagan in the derby.
Punjab’s owner Ranjit Bajaj felt his club’s facility won’t allow them to host matches in May. Punjab has had 2pm kick-offs for its home games all season since the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana does not have floodlights. “It will be too hot to play our home games at 2pm in May,” said Bajaj. Punjab, which shares the second spot with East Bengal, has four matches left this season including three home affairs.
Punjab announced on Thursday that it has allowed its players to travel home. Of the six foreigners, four have flown back home, while Aser Dipanda Dicka (Cameroon) and Kingsley Obumneme (Nigeria) had to remain at the club’s academy because their countries had closed their borders.
- Contracts might need re-working -
The clubs will also have to work their way around the contracts and the eligibility of the players if the league continues till the start of the summer transfer window. The player contracts are not uniform across clubs -- Chennai City has players signed on until June 30, while several clubs have deals until the end of May.
The FIFA and the AFC have decided to look into the need of amendments or temporary dispensations to the FIFA regulations on the status and transfer of players to protect contracts for both players and clubs and adjusting player registration periods.
“We will need to see if we could re-register those players or if we would need to bring in new players for that particular period,” Bajaj said.
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