The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted football competitions across the globe with all the major European leagues suspended and unlikely to resume any time soon. In India, the I-League, its second-tier football competition is facing a similar fate after the All India Federation decided to suspend the remainder of the campaign till March 31.
As things stand, Mohun Bagan have already wrapped up the title with four round of matches to go, but there is a long list of clubs that have more than a realistic chance of finishing second on the table, a feat that could earn them a place in the group stages of next season’s AFC Cup.
However, with the number of coronavirus cases in the country growing every day, it appears unlikely that the season will be able to resume in early April and the possibility of it stretching beyond the expected closing date is quite high.
The further postponement could be a big blow to the clubs financially which even in usual circumstances have a struggle on their hands to make ends meet.
AIFF’s plans of staging the IFA Shield in May could come to the rescue of these clubs who accounted for it while handing out contracts for their players.
“As of now, the way things are planned, it won’t be a big problem for us, as the players’ contracts run up to May,” Praveen VC, the CEO of Gokulam Kerala told Scroll.in.
“Since there were plans of an IFA Shield in May in place of the Super Cup, we have the players with us till May. The IFA Shield won’t happen this season, so we are hoping we can use that time for the remaining league matches,” he added.
However, if the league stretches into June and beyond, the clubs could well be in trouble due to the additional costs involved and also the contractual mess it could create for them.
“Playing after May becomes really unviable,” Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Punjab FC told Scroll.in “We will have to assemble almost a new team for just one month. A player may or may not want to sign an extension with the club as it means he can only be transferred once in the entire year that follows. In Indian football, it could be a problem for a player.”
Paying salaries for the players and other staff for an additional month is also going to be problematic for most clubs.
“This has been a season of losses for us due to the delay in getting underway,” Bajaj said.
“We usually have a one and half month pre-season, but this year that was extended to three as we started late in November. So, we have already paid two months’ salaries extra and if we have to do so for an additional month or two, it’s almost equal to our budget for a whole season. That’s a deal-breaker,” he added.
The AIFF is yet to discuss future course of action with the clubs with the communication over the remainder of the season expected to happen on March 31. But considering the current circumstances, it is likely to be pushed to April 15, further delaying the resumption of the season.
With no clarity over the schedule of the remainder of the season, any discussions over a possible financial relief for the clubs by the AIFF in case of postponement of the season into June remains moot.
Not a level playing field?
East Bengal are currently second in the table, level on points with Punjab FC who sit third. However, Churchill Brothers in the eighth position are just three points behind the duo. So there’s still plenty to play for this season for a lot of teams.
However, the teams may not be able to field their strongest teams if the season extends beyond May, a scenario very much possible as things stand.
A team can register a maximum of 30 players in a season and no more than four foreign players. So in case, any of the existing players refuse to sign a one-month extension, teams may not be able to sign players as they may have exhausted their quota. So teams may not be able to display similar form when the season resumes and that would obviously impact the final standings.
“We are in a good position in the league, so obviously we want to return and complete the season,” the Punjab FC owner said.
“But it is a very tricky situation where you may not be able to field a proper team in those games. Some of the clubs may have exhausted their limit of registering players which would make it difficult for them to sign new players if some of the earlier group of players don’t agree to extend,” he added.
Despite the possible financial difficulties and contractual mess, the clubs are by no means desperate to get onto the field and are taking strong measures for the safety of its players.
Gokulam Kerala have kept their players in quarantine at their club house and have cancelled training till the end of the month.
“It’s not safe for the players to train or travel at the moment, so we have not scheduled any training for the next week,” Praveen said.
“If the situation improves, we may look at safe places to train for our players next month as travelling to our home ground to train is not advisable,” he added. It is worth noting here that Kerala have since announced a complete lockdown.
Punjab FC have released their players so that they can remain in safe surroundings with their families.
“We are very clear. We don’t want to play until it’s completely safe for us to play. It’s important for the players to be at home with their families, so we have released them. We’ll only call them back when we know when we are resuming,” Bajaj said.