Football was the first live sport in India to return after the coronavirus pandemic with the I-League qualifiers, and the All India Football Federation is now set to roll out the main I-League season in Kolkata from January 9.
However, while the government is allowing spectators up to 50% of stadium capacity for outdoor sports, the AIFF is being cautious in their approach towards bringing back fans.
“Whatever the government protocols, the health of the players and the staff is paramount for us,” AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das told reporters during an online interaction ahead of the new I-League season.
“Even if the government allows us to have a crowd, we will consider it in the future. But at this point, we are not ready to risk the health of the players,” he added.
Eleven teams will take part in the I-League this season that will be held within a bio-secure bubble in Kolkata. Sudeva FC from New Delhi and Mohammedan Sporting from Kolkata are the two new entrants to the competition, replacing East Bengal and Mohun Bagan who have now joined the Indian Super League.
Sunando Dhar, the AIFF Chief Executive Officer for leagues, revealed that there have been few positive cases for coronavirus among the arriving teams and its staff members but the number is not very high. Dhar did not divulge the exact number of positive cases after the latest round of testing.
“On an average 200-250 tests are being carried out per day. There have been a few positive cases but very few. and they are mostly among team officials and support staff and not many among the players,” Dhar told reporters.
Every hotel hosting a team has left a floor vacant for the isolation of members who test positive but the decision whether to quarantine them within the hotel or outside rests with the teams.
With AIFF bearing the expenses of lodging and boarding, the I-League teams won’t be getting the subsidy that the federation provides for each team every season.
“The subsidy is for travel and stay of the teams but since this year the federation is hosting and paying for the one-way travels, there will be no subsidy. In fact, with the bio-bubble, the AIFF is bearing a heavier cost this season than what we pay as a subsidy,” Dhar said.
The slots for continental competitions have been a cause for a lot of confusion in the last few years but Dhar confirmed that the winners of the 2020-’21 I-League will earn a spot in the AFC Cup group stages as prescribed in the roadmap for Indian football revealed in 2019.
Meanwhile, the AIFF said that the age-group leagues are unlikely to begin this season.
“It’s a big logistical challenge to play the junior leagues,” Das said.
“With the I-League and ISL there are just 11 teams, so a bio-bubble is manageable. But with so many teams from different parts participating in the junior leagues, it is very difficult to hold it this season. We cannot compromise on the safety and health of the players,” he added.
Das however said that the AIFF is hopeful of conducting the junior leagues next season considering the recent positive developments about the Covid-19 vaccine.
For now, the AIFF will be focusing all their energies on ensuring that the I-League season goes on smoothly so that it paves way for the resumption of more football competitions in the country in the coming months.