The Indian Super League (ISL) season continues to soldier on despite a COVID-19 outbreak inside the bio-secure bubble in Goa. Five games, including four in the space of six days, have already been postponed.
Several players, coaching staff, family members, and hotel staff inside the ISL bubble have tested positive. The affected teams have been barred from training and have struggled to field competitive XIs.
Of the 11 teams, only Chennaiyin FC and Mumbai City FC have had no cases so far. ATK Mohun Bagan has been the worst hit, with two of its matches already called off.
Despite the ongoing crisis, All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das said the ISL won’t take an immediate break. “It will depend on the medical advice. We have a strong medical team there. It [decision] can’t be based on sporting merit, but on medical advice,” said Das. “There have been a few cases here and there. ISL was nearly 45 days into the competition before we started having these cases. With I-League, it was reported in the first round.”
Under current guidelines, a positive test warrants 10-day isolation, while the close contacts go in isolation for 72 hours and need three successive negative results to come out of it.
ISL’s new match guidelines put in place after the first postponed match between ATK Mohun Bagan and Odisha state “matches will go ahead if 15 players are available. In the event there aren’t 15 players per team, the league will try and re-schedule the game if a window is available. If there is no suitable date, the opponent will be awarded a 3-0 win. If both teams do not have 15 players, it will be considered a 0-0 draw.”
A league source told Sportstar , “the league is confident of accommodating the postponed fixtures at a later date.”
Teams, however, are aggrieved over the lack of training time. Several leading ISL players – Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Edu Bedia, and Victor Mongil – have voiced their frustrations over the confining nature of the bubble life for a second successive season. Chennaiyin FC coach Bozidar Bandovic described the training-to-hotel routine as akin to being in jail.
SC East Bengal CEO was forced into a lockdown after one of the hotel cleaning staff tested positive. Club CEO Shivaji Samaddar has called for a circuit breaker to help stabilise the situation. “After the outbreak, the SOPs have undergone huge modifications. The new SOPs are more restrictive in an already restraining atmosphere of the existing bio-bubble. Considering this, a break of around 10 -12 days in the league is quite necessary. A lot of clubs believe a break will sort things out. Instead, the ISL management spoke about putting in stricter SOPs and continuing with the present schedule. They have made the gymnasiums out of bounds and made tests mandatory every day even to go to practice,” the retired Colonel Samaddar said.
“It is severely taxing on both the mental and physical health of the players. I hope the ISL management considers every factor before deciding to go ahead with the normal schedule now that already four matches have been postponed owing to the outbreak.”
Bengaluru FC saw its match against ATKMB scheduled for January 15 called off. BFC coach Marco Pezzaiuoli didn't favour a break in the league amid an already packed schedule and confined environment.
"I’m not of the opinion for a break in the League, for multiple reasons. If the League takes a break and has to be finished within the same time frame, then it means an already tight schedule has to be made even tighter to accommodate more games in a short time, and players stand a big risk of injuries or burning out. That’s not ideal at all. Secondly, a break with an extended calendar means players and staff having to spend longer time in the bubble than we otherwise would, and that is going to take a mental and physical toll on the players," said Pezzaiuoli.
He added, "I understand it is a very tricky situation, where nothing seems like the best solution. The solution – for the future is – a longer League with more games, and enough time between those games. Leagues in different sports across the world are managing this, and the way the ISL is growing, it needs to adopt the same structure."
Former India international and FC Goa coach Derrick Pereira, too, is concerned about the health of his players. “I have told this time and again before, the circumstances under which we are operating are tough. The only times most players are getting out of their rooms is to either go to the training or for a game,” Pereira stated ahead of the game against SC East Bengal.
“It’s not up to me to decide whether we should postpone the league or carry on. What we can care for are our players. The health of everyone in this organisation is important, and that’s the most important thing. If it’s safe to play, we carry on. Otherwise, the people in charge should be able to decide on it because it’s important to take care of each and everyone’s health.”
Chennaiyin FC’s Hungarian boss Bandovic, however, doesn’t want the league to pause. “We don’t have cases. We’ve been following all the rules and protocols. Now what other teams do and how they’ve got cases, this is a question for others. So, for us, there is no question of a break,” he said. “We have not spoken about this at all. We are just waiting to see what happens. Of course, many games are getting postponed. For me, we should play the game even with available players, but of course, safety comes first. Now we wait. Because I don’t even see how we are going to play games in the next week with teams that have positive cases.”
With inputs from Amitabha Das Sharma
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