With each passing hour, football leagues across the globe are coming to an abrupt halt across the globe, after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. In the larger walks of life, disruption to sport will seem insignificant. And in this situation, it seems rather strange that the Indian Super League (ISL) final, albeit behind closed doors, is set to go ahead on Saturday.
The billboards at the airport and around the city, welcoming fans to the final, involving visiting teams Chennaiyin FC and ATK, seem ironic at the moment.
In all this, the build-up and the pre-match press conference here at the Taj Exotica was telling a story in itself.
The normal proceedings when you enter a five-star hotel is having your bags, mobiles and wallets put through the security check. But having made the climb up the creeping road up to the porch, and to the entrance, you are greeted with a temperature check, using an infrared thermometer. And even after that, our belongings weren't put through the scanner. The stand, where you place your mobile phones and wallets before you pass through the metal scanner, had a sanitizer and a box of tissues to wash your hands with.
We then moved into the press conference halls where the respective coaches and captains of each side were to address the media about the final. As ATK coach Antonio Habas and captain Roy Krishna finished their briefing and photo-ops with the trophy on the stage, Chennaiyin gaffer Owen Coyle entered the room with his skipper Lucian Goian. Banning pre-match handshakes had become a common ruling across sports over the past two weeks. Coyle exercised no caution, with no such protocol imposed on ISL, by quickly embracing Habas' no. 2, Manuel Perez, and also threw in a handshake.
The Chennaiyin duo then climbed onto the stage with their counterparts and completed the pre-match photos before they shook hands and embraced each other to wish them luck.
All four explained that a closed-door football game was a first of their careers.
"It (spread of COVID-19) is a problem in the world and we have to respect the decision. It is more important than football and for the safety of the people. We would love to have the support and it is different to play without supporters but we have to be a professional to play like this," said Habas.
Fans are among the most important stakeholders for any sport. For a final to be played with no cheers and chants around the 19,000-capacity stadium, will make for an eerie atmosphere. A Goa Sports Authority official said, "It's like any other game. It doesn't feel like a final."
And they are naturally disappointed. Close to hundred supporters of Chennaiyin had to see their three-day preparation for the game stopped with the court ruling. A handful of supporters decided to make a road-trip out of it on their bikes and had the news broken to them halfway through the journey.
"The league has agreed to tie our banners inside. So although we won't be there, our banners at least will be in the stands," said Jenisha, who will be attending a screening along with 25 fellow supporters, who travelled to Goa, at a hotel nearby the venue. "We'll welcome the team bus at the stadium and attend the screening and rush back to the stadium immediately after the full-time whistle or even earlier."
A few hundred ATK fans from Kolkata, Mumbai and Kerala will also settle for watching from their cities now. "It's obviously very disappointing. But we are high in spirits and will cheer them on at the screening," said Sounab, an ATK fan.