NEW DELHI: The All India Football Federation (AIFF) had successfully hosted the I-League Qualifiers in Kolkata, signalling the restart of live sports in the country during the pandemic. But the I-League is a whole different ball game with more matches, teams and personnel.
The qualifiers only had five teams and was a 25-day affair while the I-League will be played among 11 teams for over 100 days. The teams have been divided across two 5-star hotels — with RoundGlass Punjab FC, Indian Arrows, Chennai City FC, TRAU FC and Churchill Brothers FC in one hotel, while Real Kashmir FC, Mohammedan SC, Gokulam Kerala FC, Aizawl FC, Sudeva Delhi FC and Neroca FC are housed in the second. Match officials and referees have been put up in a separate hotel.
All this along with thousands of RT-PCR tests have not been easy either on the pockets of AIFF. The League's CEO Sunando Dhar outlined how difficult the task at hand is, both from an economic standpoint as well as the manpower required.
"AIFF is not a federation flush with funds. So, we had to try and find a way best suited to our abilities. FIFA's Covid-19 fund helped us a lot in this regard.The West Bengal state government and the Indian Football Association have also been supportive. The reduced number of days due to the new format was something we worked on and most people are multi-tasking. We've never micro-managed this event to such an extent but we are hopeful of conducting it without a glitch," he said during a virtual interaction.
The new SOP in place for the tournament includes each member in every team requiring to submit three negative Covid-19 RT-PCR tests before entering the bio-bubble. The samples had to be taken ten, six and two days prior to them entering the bubble. After checking in, the teams will again be tested on the second and fifth day followed by regular tests every 5-6 days and regular monitoring of body vitals.
Each team has been allocated a total of 20 rooms in the hotel, with the addition of a separate medical/physio room for every side. For their quarantine, a comprehensive list of dos-and-don'ts has been given to each team. The housekeeping staff attending to the rooms will also be a part of the same bio-bubble and will be tested every 3-4 days. Other support staff such as drivers, security personnel and other hotel staff will also be tested regularly.
"Safety is of paramount importance to us. We cannot take risks. We've developed a comprehensive set of guidelines which will help us keep the bio-bubble secure," AIFF secretary Kushal Das added.
Still, positive cases have been detected. While a few players are among the list, most of them include support staff. They have the option of quarantining in a separate facility or in the floor above the hotel which has been earmarked for this purpose. And the AIFF is confident of the I-League reaching great heights despite the absence of big names Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
"There are clubs from different parts of the nation including a team from Delhi for the first time. That gives a unique opportunity for young talent in that area a chance to aspire. It gives them a platform to showcase talent," Das added.
The I-League kicks-off on Saturday with Sudeva Delhi FC clashing against Mohammedan SC.