CHENNAI: Isolated from everyday life, some of the country's elite footballers, along with a bunch of foreigners, have been refining their skills and trying to get in prime shape — both mentally and physically — in different parts of Goa for the last month or so. The objective? the Indian Super League.
With the 2021-21 edition set to kick off on Friday, they'll be in the spotlight for the next three months. Like the last term, this season will also be held in a bio-bubble across three venues – Athletic Stadium (Bambolim), Tilak Maidan Stadium (Vasco) and PJN Stadium (Fatorda) — without fans.
Mumbai City joined the winners' club last season while teams like Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC toiled. But that's history as the clubs, with several fresh faces including coaches, start from zero in the points table. Besides challenges on the field, the sides, like the previous season, will also have to cope with living in a bio-bubble.
The Covid-19 situation has improved drastically in the country but it's still a big factor that will play in the minds of the players and everyone involved in the league. BFC manager Marco Pezzaiuoli, one of the league's fresh faces, for instance, is learning to navigate his side in his early days.
"It is hard in the bubble. You do not have a private life, you cannot even cut your hair, we are cutting it ourselves. The simple things, what you think, time with family, stepping out to meet fans... these are not possible. Of course, you will be happy when you have positive results, but there are 10 other teams in the league, which means not everybody will have positive results. It is very difficult not only for the coach but also for the team itself, to have the dynamics to think positively. In the end, we are trying our best, giving our 100 per cent, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose," he said.
Syed Sabir Pasha, who has been associated with Chennaiyin since 2016 as an assistant coach, is using his experience to deal with the present times. "It's always tough (living in bio-bubble). We've come to do what we like the most, that is play football. In that sense, we are lucky. We feel like a family here and the understanding among players is getting much better," he said during a virtual interaction on Wednesday.
Chennaiyin will be under the guidance of a new manager, Bozidar Bandovic, this time. Besides Chennaiyin and Bengaluru, the likes of Mumbai City, Odisha FC, Kerala Blasters and East Bengal will also have a new face in the touchline. All the teams were involved in pre-season ties, in experimental mode, appraising their squads in a bid to find the perfect combination. Like Chennaiyin, Bengaluru had a forgetful 2020-21 season. After finishing as champions in 2018-19, Bengaluru have gone backward. Pezzaiuoli is intent on arresting the slide. "The team is now two months into the preparation. We started in Bellary. We played two games against Jamshedpur and Chennai. It takes a little bit of time now, but I think we want to be better than last season," he said.
Chennaiyin find themselves in a similar scenario and they have brought in several new faces to fill the holes in the team. Aware of the challenges newcomers generally tend to face, Pasha is satisfied with the manner in which the players, especially newcomers, have been taking in instructions. "During the practice matches, we tried many combinations as there are numerous players who have joined the team. Getting the team to gel soon is always difficult but we have done very well. They have been showing great progress. We have tried many players in many combinations and now we know what we require from the players and the players also know what is required from them," he said.
FC Goa, meanwhile, will be entering the season with Juan Ferrando as coach for the second straight year. Having helped the team enter the semifinals last season, Ferrando is more familiar with the rigours of the game in the country. Having begun training as early as August, he's pleased with the build-up. His main focus is to keep his wards in a positive frame of mind during challenging times.
"We have to remember that players are not robots. They have emotions. The team (as a unit) has emotions. If we are able to have a healthy relationship, it becomes easier for the tactical information to have an effect on the pitch. For me, it's vital that the players are in a good frame of mind heading into the season... for them to be positive," Ferrando said.
It goes without saying the ISL has lifted the plight of Indian football over the years. Sharing a dressing room with foreigners, some of whom were A-listers during their prime, has had a positive effect on Indians, especially youngsters. A consistent run, especially with the introduction of the 3+1 rule (only four foreigners will be allowed to be part of XI instead of 5 in the previous editions), here could propel them to the national team too.
This season is no different as youngsters look to get that vital elite-level minutes under their belts. Anirudh Thapa, for instance, has grown from strength-to-strength and is one of the vital cogs for Chennaiyin FC. And he's also one of the key players for the national team, having made his senior debut in 2017. The fact that he's been named the captain of the side says a lot.
"ISL has created many chances for youngsters. It's a big occasion for youngsters. At a professional level, it has brought about a big change. When you share a dressing room with a World Cup player, then everything changes for a youngster. Now, if you see the likes of Thapa (Anirudh)...when he came in as a young boy...when Jerry came in as a young boy, they had to face big players. Their characters have developed. The confidence of the players has really shot up. That confidence level is what I feel was missing in the past. When we were playing, this was not there," Sabir said.
Rahim Ali, 21, is one of the youngsters who's looking to follow Thapa's path. Ali, who has 5 India international caps, played as many as 16 matches last term and will be looking for more game time this term. He wants to keep it simple and help his side. "If I play as No 9, I'll have the same role as I had when I played for India U-23 team. I want to keep it simple and help the team. That's my main target," Ali said.
With youngsters like Ali and several new managers with different philosophies in the mix, the latest edition promises plenty of exciting action and a kick for Indian football of course.