Women’s Asian Cup: Dennerby lashes out at AFC for ‘unprofessional’ handling of bio-bubble

“Our dreams are forever killed,” says the India head coach as he criticises the AFC for its handling of the bio-bubble in Navi Mumbai.

Thomas Dennerby looks on during the contest between India and Iran at the DY Patil Stadium on January 20. Dennery says AFC should have sent the COVID test reports of the hotel staff sooner.   -  Getty Images

A devastated Thomas Dennerby questioned the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) organisation and handling of the Covid-19 outbreak within the Indian women’s team, which led to its ouster from the home AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

“My team and I are devastated. Our dreams are forever killed,” said the Indian national team coach, adding there was nothing more the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could have done about the situation. “Six months of sacrifice, dreams and passion. We didn’t even go home for Christmas or New Year’s just to stay safe. For what reason now. This is my worst experience as a head coach ever.”

After a fighting draw against Iran on matchday 1, India was forced to withdraw from its second group game against Chinese Taipei on Sunday for failing to have sufficient players to field a team. The AFC then issued a statement confirming that India “is considered to have withdrawn“ from the tournament as per the guidelines.

Explaining the sequence of events, Dennerby said, “After 150 days in a bubble since my appointment with no positive results, we moved to Navi Mumbai on January 13. We were all in single rooms. We got out with negative results. The girls stayed in their rooms all the time. Between sessions, the girls were not allowed to leave the rooms, they had all meals in their rooms. On the 16th, we were tested at the hotel and we had the first case of positive result. It was very strange and we thought it must have come from someone in the bubble. On the 17th, we prepared normally. On the 18th, we had pre-match testing, and had three new cases. Our physio and strength and conditioning coach tested positive, who were very close to the hotel staff to prepare for the gym.

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“What we didn’t know was the hotel staff were tested on 17th afternoon and the result said seven staff tested positive. After that, the AFC did not send the report to the hotel until the 19th. Kitchen staff, chef, house-keeping, Team India co-ordinator, service staff, all of who are taking care of us tested positive. Why didn’t the AFC send the report immediately? Why wait a whole day?

“AFC should have called the hotel and asked them to isolate immediately. That was a really big mistake. Why weren’t the hotel staff not tested every three days as the team? No test was done between the 11th and the 17th. I think that was an unprofessional way to handle in an AFC bubble for a big tournament with World Cup qualification on the line. No explanation is good enough. We took care of ourselves well while travelling around the world but now the responsibility is on AFC. What hurts me now is that the AFC is trying to blame us which is a shame.

"Since the COVID breach was not our fault, the AFC should have found out a solution. It was an exceptional situation and AFC could have taken steps like say postponing the matches by a few days."

At present, 19 players and six staff of the Indian team have tested positive and are under isolation.

Dennerby is slated to return to the U-17 girls’ team to help prepare for the U-17 FIFA World Cup in October, his original assignment, before he was elevated to the senior team role last August.

“I need to get some rest and go home to my family for a week or two. I haven’t met them since August. The break will give me back my good energy and we can start working hard with the U-17 team. This will motivate me to work work hard to try and have a successful World Cup,” said Dennerby.

AFC responded via email to Sportstar, stating the body aims to ‘delivering a successful Championship in collaboration with the AIFF and the LOC by prioritising the safety, health and wellbeing of all the players, officials and stakeholders.’

It added, “The AFC has successfully conducted major tournaments across Asia in the face of serious challenges posed by the pandemic by implementing strict medical and health protocols that are in line with the host country’s medical regulations.”

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