I-League Qualifiers, a ‘bio-bubble’ success

The five-round tournament pitted five candidates for a lone qualification spot and Mohammedan Sporting gained entry to the tournament proper after seven years.

The five-round tournament pitted five candidates for a lone qualification spot and Mohammedan Sporting gained entry to the tournament proper after seven years.   -  Special Arrangement

The first effort at reviving sports activity in India through a ‘bio-bubble’ has turned out to be a successful operation. With the COVID-19 pandemic laying siege to the world for a substantial period now, the Qualifiers of the I-League sought to beat the scourge by creating a bio-secure environment. This was the first competitive sports event after the government ordered a graded unlocking of activities following the lockdown.

The five-round tournament pitted five candidates for a lone qualification spot and Mohammedan Sporting gained entry to the tournament proper after seven years. The jubilation in the Mohammedan Sporting camp also meant a fair success for the bio-bubble concept. This also brought to fruition months of planning and coordination involving the likes of the national body, All India Football Federation (AIFF), its affiliate in West Bengal, Indian Football Association, and the patron, Government of West Bengal.

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At its inception, the announcement by the AIFF about resuming the competitions appeared both audacious and bold. The League committee of AIFF decided to restart the new season with the Qualifiers when most other sports federations were still in lockdown. The AIFF grabbed the opportunity to have the Qualifiers in Kolkata from October 8. The Union Government declared opening of sporting activities (under Unlock 4.0) from September 21 and by the final week of the same month the AIFF had put in place the all important ‘Bio-Bubble.’

“The way we executed the plan, I can say that the implementation of the bio-bubble has been quite satisfactory. This was the first of a kind in India as we didn’t have the scope to refer to any previous experience. Obviously, there was some learning as we progressed with the idea but overall everything that we managed to put in place has been quite satisfying,” I-League CEO Sunando Dhar said.

A stadium official disinfects the goalpost ahead of a match.   -  Special Arrangement

 

“Having ensured and executed a safe bubble environment for all the players and officials involved in the tournament, we have assured that sporting events can be held in our country if proper procedures and guidelines are followed,” the League CEO said, looking ahead to the I-League proper, which is slated to start sometime late in December and will be played in venues in and around Kolkata. “I-League will present a challenge in multiplied effect because of its duration and extent. And what we have learned here will surely help us in making things more watertight for the next tournament,” he added.

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The bio-bubble has been tried out in some of the prominent leagues around the world and the AIFF used them as references. “We really didn’t have any template for that (bio-bubble) in our country but we picked up something from a couple of workshops with AFC, which had invited countries where leagues have started, like in Korea and Qatar. They presented their SOPs (standard operating procedure) and that was quite helpful. We could also get some inputs from the other leagues happening around the world and adapted them,” Dhar said.

What was the bio-bubble all about? “A number of strict protocols and health regulations were put in place in accordance with the SOPs finalised for the tournament. As per the SOPs, every individual had to spend four days in quarantine once they entered the bio-secure bubble that was created for all the teams and officials, with a test done on the third day of quarantine. After that, these individuals were tested every five-six days.

A player is checked during the I-League qualifiers. As per the SOPs, every individual had to spend four days in quarantine once they entered the bio-secure bubble that was created for all the teams and officials, with a test conducted on the third day of quarantine. After that, these individuals were tested every five-six days.   -  Special Arrangement

 

“Starting from September 16, more than 1,200 tests were conducted. A number of extra precautions were also taken during the course of the tournament. The vitals of every team member were checked on a regular basis. All the vehicles, training grounds and surrounding facilities were sanitised before being used. On match-days, the players and officials could not move outside designated areas inside the stadium, which were sanitised and sealed well before their arrival,” a report issued by the AIFF, said.

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“The concept was to keep the peers, which here are the footballers, support staff and the match officials, within an imaginary wall of protection. Once the number of participants was decided no outsiders were allowed. Everyone in the bubble had to follow the protocols to prevent a transmission of the virus. The bubble was further kept intact by regular testing and sanitisation of all the places used in the tournament,” said Dr. Protim Roy of the AIFF medical team.

What was the realistic effect of the bio-bubble? “Once the bubble was created only five persons among a total of 180 people tested positive which meant that the level of contamination was kept below three per cent. It can be termed as fairly successful,” Dr. Roy, who has worked with many teams in the I-League as a sports medicine expert, said.

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Many wondered if such strict medical protocols put the players under psychological pressure and hampered their performance. “The emotions about football is so powerful that the players were able put the restrictions behind when they were playing the matches. As a coach we educated the players about the new normal and that did help them accept and adapt well to the restrictions mandated in the bio-bubble,” said former India captain and FC Bengaluru United assistant coach Gouramangi Singh.

Securing safety

Layers in the bubble... Three. One at the main gate. One cordoned off area around the gym and the dining room. One around the rooms.

Who all were allowed inside the bubble... Registered players, support-staff and some people from the management, designated hotel staff and some AIFF officials, local managers.

How many in a room... Generally two persons.

Travel from hotel to stadium... Sanitised bus moved through specified routes in the stadiums which had been sanitised. There was constant monitoring and sanitisation at practice venues.

How was the bubble kept intact... Strict supervision by AIFF officials and local managers.

Contingency plans... Strict vigil by AIFF and a dedicated team ensured no one breached it. Those testing positive were quarantined in specified zones. Only five tested positive.

Protocol for meal services and gym... Only two teams were allowed at a time during meals. A gap of 15 minutes for sanitisation before other set of teams arrives.

Every team had to comply with a schedule given to them. Only one team was allowed inside gym at a time. A 15-minute gap for sanitisation before the other team arrived.

“It was difficult but given the circumstances everyone had to accept the ground reality to ensure their own safety and the successful conduct of the tournament. A lot of adjustments were needed as everyone had to sacrifice their individual preferences and strictly follow the protocols. I congratulate all the stakeholders for the way they coordinated and kept the bubble intact,” Gouramangi said.

Mohammedan Sporting forward Singam Subhash Singh echoed Gouramangi’s words, saying that the tournament presented a novel experience and what triumphed in the end was the will to defeat the pandemic. “It was really difficult as most of our activities were curtailed and monitored under strict guidelines. Be it having food or going out for practice, everything was under strict protocols which did not allow any deviation. But everyone followed it knowing well that it was for a common good and in the end the tournament was a success,” Subhash Singh said.

“The situation from the beginning was not easy. One could not decide what he wanted to do but had to follow what was laid out in the guidelines. But once the players accepted the fact that it was for the betterment of the game, the difficulties were gone. We prepared them mentally for the situation and that was reflected in what we achieved in the end,” said a jubilant Saheed Ramon, who guided Mohammedan Sporting to I-League qualification after the club sacked head coach Yan Law midway through the tournament.