ISL soldiers on in a year of uncertainties

The ISL and the governors of Indian football have taken a step forward, and now it is for the clubs — the other stakeholders — to offer foresight to take the game to greater heights.

ATK, the ISL champion in 2014, 2016 and 2019-20, merged with I-League winner Mohun Bagan ahead of the 2020-21 season.

The seventh edition of the Indian Super League (ISL), reinforced with the long-awaited introduction of Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan (now ATK-Mohun Bagan) and East Bengal, will be held in a world like no other — not a world of dreams, but a dystopian nightmare.

A raging pandemic forced us indoors while valiant health workers fought on gamely to give humans a chance to fight back, for scientists to huddle and weave their magic wands to conjure a miraculous cure. Sports, too, huddled inside, with players waging a battle against opponents and their own frayed nerves — far removed from the energising spirit of packed stadiums, the foremost inspiration for their athletic pursuits. In a bubble, in empty stadiums, they soldiered on to keep the game going, to provide us with the distraction of live sports to help us momentarily forget the quagmire we live in.

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The cure looks a little while away, but the white coats have done their part while politicians bickered, and sports has offered a prelude to normalcy, reinforcing our belief in human resilience. It gives us hope, a glimpse of joy and the courage to fight – with masks on, hands sanitised – to wage a battle against this pandemic that we will finally win. The return of football in Europe, the completion of the NBA in the world’s worst-hit nation, and the bustling euphoria from the Indian Premier League in the United Arab Emirates signal that life is starting anew. In India, too, we are ready to shed fear and mark a return to normalcy by hosting our first major sporting event in the post-pandemic world with the four-month-long ISL in a specially created bubble across various venues in Goa.

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The template was tried and tested during the short I-League qualifiers in Kolkata, giving the All India Football Federation the confidence to go ahead with the ISL. “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,” I-League chief executive officer Sunanda Dhar told Sportstar. “The ISL and the I-League will present a challenge with a multiplier effect because of their duration and scope. And what we have learned will surely help us in making things more watertight for the next tournament.”

While the I-League qualifiers involved five teams and 10 matches, the ISL is an 11-team, 115-match mammoth affair, and maintaining the sanctity of the bio-secure bubble will be the biggest challenge for the participants.

“Mohun Bagan and East Bengal coming in is a huge thing,” says India captain Sunil Chhetri, who has played for both Kolkata teams and is now with Bengaluru FC.

 

It is a disappointment that the tournament will be held behind closed doors in a season where it is welcoming in its fold the two most-followed clubs in the country. ATK-Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal — with loyalties divided along the two sides of the River Padma — have a century-old rivalry and boast of a fanatical fandom that can transcend the game beyond the worldly realm to lend it a mythical ferocity where love and logic are cast aside. “Mohun Bagan and East Bengal coming in is a huge thing. I have been in Indian football for 19 years. Both clubs are monumental in stature and synonymous with Indian football. For them to play alongside the top Indian players in the ISL is huge,” says India captain Sunil Chhetri.

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Chhetri, now with Bengaluru FC, has played for both Kolkata giants. “It is a shame that their fans will not be there in the stadium, but I am sure that they will make themselves heard on other platforms. The tournament will be very competitive with their entry,” he says.

The ISL — suffering from a seven-year itch — has been struggling with diminishing eyeballs, and over the past few seasons there has been a lurking threat of mediocrity engulfing the promised endeavour. The timely inclusion of the two clubs can offer the league a foundation of centuries and pull in a mammoth pre-existing fanbase that no sport can ignore. “The ISL will definitely benefit with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan coming in. These clubs have a lot of history; they bring in fans to the stadium,” Indian football icon Bhaichung Bhutia says. “The fans in the stadium were coming down drastically. When it started, it was the third-highest watched league in stadiums. I feel by them coming in, it will add value to the league.”

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But there are still deficiencies to be ironed out and teams to be nurtured — an aspect most ISL franchises have ignored so far. The constant changing of personnel has left most teams without a binding identity — another reason for the diminishing interest. Nine of the 11 teams have new coaches with major changes in the squads from the past season.

There are always rewards for continuity and Bhutia credits a pre-merger ATK and Bengaluru FC’s success to a settled squad. “ATKMB (ATK-Mohun Bagan) has retained most of the ATK players from last season. Bengaluru FC also has a very good team which has played together for a long time. I see both these teams doing well, but because of the pandemic, there are no clear favourites this season,” he says. “FC Goa did well last season to qualify for the AFC Champions League, but a lot of those players have left. It is a completely new-look team. Indian clubs should have long-term plans and build and retain their teams accordingly.”

The ISL and the governors of Indian football have taken a step forward, and now it is for the clubs — the other stakeholders — to offer foresight to take the game to greater heights.

The ISL bubble

Access

Access to accommodation, training facilities and the stadiums is divided into four tiers:

Tier 1: Players, team officials, match officials and personnel interacting with them regularly including accompanying family members.

Tier 2: Persons interacting with Tier-1 personnel for pre-identified workflows.

Tier 3: Persons having no physical interaction with players and team officials. They will have operational access to the field of play and the competition, delegate and media areas.

Tier 4: Persons interacting with Tier-3 personnel. Their access will be limited to the stadium concourse.

Testing

Tier-1 personnel will be tested every three days, while testing will not take place on match days. Tier-2 and 3 personnel will also be tested every three days.

What happens if an individual tests positive?

1. The individual will be isolated from the group in the ISL isolation facility if asymptomatic and in hospital if showing symptoms). PT-PCR and RAT tests will be conducted, and if they return negative, a second PT-PCR test will be taken after 24 hours of the result of the first test. The individual can return to the bio-bubble, where the regular 72-hour testing will continue, only if both tests return negative. The individual will also require a 10-day isolation period in their hotel room.

2. Any member of the team who was in contact with the individual who tested positive will also have to undergo 14-day isolation and a series of tests before returning to the bubble.