A compact ISL and I-League should be an alternative for the 2020-21 season!


Football is bound to face some key challenges in the post Coronavirus world, as is evident from the European leagues. The world is still getting used to experiencing games with no fans in the stands and the norms are here to stay for a while now.

An increased travelling for matches and diversity in the number of stadiums used for the tournament makes it difficult to contain the spread of the virus. UEFA ruling to host the quarterfinals, semi-finals and the final of the Champions League in a neutral venue (Lisbon) hence comes as a welcome move.

The European footballing body confirmed that Estadio da Luz and Estadio Jose Alvalade, home to Benfica and Sporting respectively will play host to the single-legged games in the subsequent rounds. There will be no changes in venues for the remaining games from the Round-of-16.

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Even the Qatar Stars League (QSL) has adopted this format to finish their league off. The rest of the rounds in QSL will be played in three stadiums. Numerous other leagues, including the Chinese Super League (CSL) and Australia's A-League are mulling over a short tournament at neutral venues.

Considering the rapid spread of the virus in India, it should not come as a surprise if the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the league organisers of the I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) adopts a similar strategy as a backup plan ahead of the 2020-21 season which could begin in November tentatively.

Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS), indicated in a virtual meeting representatives of 15 sports federations including the AIFF on Tuesday that tournaments could start without spectators from August. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the virus, Rijiju feels the plan should be to start some sporting events by then.

"After today’s meeting the Sports Ministry will review all the ideas and work in tandem with federations to open up sports. I feel, from August onwards, we should be able to start some sporting events as well,” Rijiju said.

"Since federations are best qualified to decide the way forward for each sport, the ministry would like to get ideas from federations. Their ideas will be the key in planning India’s post Covid strategy in sports,” he added.

Interestingly, Rijiju highlighted the need to innovate the events in order to make it easier to organise.

“Given the situation, we have to be innovative about events. We may need to hold smaller events in stadias and not have spectators. But we can surely try and beam the sports on television channels and social media platforms.”

As per sources, the Indian FA did communicate to the Minister that the domestic leagues will only start by November tentatively but they will be looking to start training camps for the various national teams in the next couple of months, given the international tournaments scheduled to start in October and November - World Cup qualifiers and AFC U16 Championship apart from preparation for the 2020 Women's U17 World Cup which will take place in February 2021.

But if the virus situation does not abate by the time October comes along, AIFF and the league organisers might need to think of alternative plans to hold both ISL and the I-League. One of the alternatives could be holding these tournaments without the 'home and away' format, at a neutral venue with a smaller schedule.

Such an arrangement would also help in case there are restrictions and quarantine procedure for inter-state travel. As of now, different quarantine rules apply for inter-state travel for each state which could possibly complicate matters when it comes to players and the operational entourage travelling back and forth.

Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad are the worst-hit among the footballing cities. Bengaluru, Kochi and Goa are moderately hit but the trend in the number of recorded active cases per day is not encouraging. The North-Eastern states, Odisha and Kerala have done well to maintain low numbers and are closest to flattening the curve.

Clearly, different parts of the country will recover at different rates. It would be overly optimistic to expect Mumbai, a city with 28,893 active cases as on June 21st to host ISL games in November.

Jamshedpur FC v Chennaiyin FC
Jamshedpur FC v Chennaiyin FC

Having just two-to-three stadiums play host could also prove beneficial in other ways as the footballers get accustomed to the new, temporary normal. With minimal training off-season and a high possibility of lack of overseas pre-season, the fitness levels of the players are bound to take a hit.

The reduction in the number of host stadiums could hence work in their favour. The fatigue due to travel is reduced and the recovery time is increased. This could play a massive role in ensuring a decent level of fitness of the players when they play three games in one week.

More importantly, any tournament or camp in the coming months will need to follow a standard operating procedure (SOP), much like what leagues in Europe are currently doing in order to ensure the virus doesn't spread. A compact tournament at a reduced number of venues will help the organisers implement the SOPs required to maintain safety and health of players.

According to the SOPs, sanitising the venues and training area is paramount and so is testing the players for Covid-19 every week. It is a costly undertaking but something that cannot be avoided.

The reduction in the number of stadiums also reduces the operational cost of the tournament due to a significant decrease in travelling and limited staff. With the economic situation in a post Coronavirus world affecting sponsorship deals and the prospect of closed-door games posing a threat to match-day revenue, this reduction in the operational cost will be a welcome move.

As such, the compact nature of an alternative tournament will only ease the burden on the organisers. Netherlands' Eredivisie have decided to open up the league for spectators from September, with social distancing restrictions. But again, they have made it clear it is dependant on the virus situation improving.

Keep in mind that such an option should only be an alternative in case the conducting the season regularly becomes unfeasible due to the situation of the virus.

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