After kick-starting the more cash-rich Indian Super League season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the All India Football Federation is all set to kick off the new season of I-League on January 9. Thanks to the "new normal", it comes with a new format and new clubs. The two big names—Mohan Bagan and East Bengal—however, will be missing as they are part of the ISL now.
The I-League will not be played in its traditional league format where all the teams play each other twice on a home and away basis (with the club with maximum number of points declared champions). Per the new format, the league is divided into two phases. The first phase, referred to as the League Stage, will see all the teams play one match against each other in a round-robin format. After every team completes 10 matches each, the 11 participating teams will be divided into two groups Group A and Group B. Group A will consist of top 6 teams and will play against each other to determine the champions; Group B will consist of the bottom five teams to decide the relegation. Interestingly, of the 11 teams competing this season, Sudeva Delhi FC and Indian Arrows have immunity from relegation. If either of these teams finish at the bottom of Group B, the team placed above them will be relegated.
Speaking to the media ahead of the I-League, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said, given the "very difficult and unprecedented circumstances", the fact that the federation has been able to start football activities is a great effort for all involved. Welcoming new clubs like Suveda Delhi FC, the first club from Delhi to play in I-League, Das said, "East Bengal-Mohun Bagan may not be playing in I-League but we welcome back Mohammedan Sporting. Suveda FC are a new team from Delhi and we will soon have a team from Vizag. I do not think I-League will lose its relevance due to the absence of the two big clubs."
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AIFF League CEO Sunando Dhar, giving details about the bio-bubble created for I-League teams in Kolkata said, "Planning for I-League qualifiers in October, we had nothing to fall back on. It was very difficult, we consulted AFC. We have learnt a lot from the qualifiers."
All matches of I-League will be played in Kolkata at four venues while there are 6-7 venues earmarked for training in the city. All teams have been put in two five-star hotels; match officials and necessary staff are in a third hotel. "Kolkata was the best alternative in terms of infrastructure and logistics facilities. Also, IFA was proactive and worked very closely with us to make it happen," said Das.
According to Dhar, "Three COVID-19 tests were done on all players, support staff, match officials and logistics personnel before entering the bio-bubble. They were then in quarantine in their rooms for seven days. Two more tests were done thereafter. Once all five tests returned negative for all individuals, they were allowed to go and train or visit the ground. The teams are on separate floors, sepearate elevators have been earmarked for their use and pathways created. Catering too is being done separately for the teams." Thereafter, the teams will be tested after every fourth day. Dhar said there have been few positive tests but none were of player or officials involved.
The AIFF in conjunction with IFA has put up medical facility in the hotel itself so as to minimise the visits to the hospital by players and officials.
With the League set to be played over 100 days, it will be a challenge for players and all involved to cope with the restrictions of the bio-bubble. However, per Dhar, teams have been told to get their gaming paraphernalia, playstations even as a dedicated room has been assigned for team dinners, meetings, parties and any other recreational activities at the team hotels.
On the issue of crowds being allowed as per government guidelines—in West Bengal, 50 per cent capacity has been allowed in the stadiums—AIFF maintained that the matches will be played without fans for the time being. "Whatever the government regulations may be, we feel the health of players, officials is paramount; it is important not to take any risk. We can consider allowing crowds later on but at this point, we are very clear crowds won't be allowed," Das said.
Dhar, meanwhile, admitted that funds for I-League were an issue but the COVID-19 fund provided by FIFA has come in handy.
Previously, I-League clubs were given travel and logistics subsidies but with all matches being held in Kolkata, the team's logistics subsidies will be minimal. "Travel and hospitality AIFF is taking care of, the cost of travel is one time- so teams will get the Travel subsidy," said Das.