Almost ten months back, the I-League had a different look to itself — Mohun Bagan were still Mohun Bagan, East Bengal still plied their trade in the second-tier, and fans were still allowed inside the stadiums. Now, it has undergone a massive overhaul, from bio-secure bubbles to a new format, for the delayed 2020/21 season.
With the pandemic still plaguing the country, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided back in December last year that the fourteenth edition of the league will be played behind closed doors in four venues — Salt Lake Stadium, Kishore Bharati Krirangan, Mohun Bagan Ground, and Kalyani Municipal Stadium — in Kolkata and Kalyani. The new season will kick-off with three matches on Saturday.
“After constant deliberations with the planning committee, we came to the decision that Kolkata was the best place to host an event of such a magnitude. The maintenance of the four venues will be done locally and the AIFF officials will also micromanage the event with the help of the Indian Football Association (IFA),” AIFF League CEO Sunando Dhar told a virtual press-conference on Thursday.
Owing to the success of the I-League Qualifiers in October last year, the AIFF now has ample experience regarding the maintenance of a bio-secure bubble.
“With the number of teams going up from five during the qualifiers to 11, the maintenance of the bio-bubble and co-ordination between the teams and organizers will be critical. We are conducting over 200 COVID-19 tests daily and the number can cross 12,000 before the end of the competition,” Dhar said.
The 11 teams have been put up in two five-star hotels in Kolkata with the match officials in a separate third hotel. Prior to their check-in, each member of all the teams provided three successive negative COVID-19 RT-PCR tests.
The new I-League season is set to be a testament to “change”. Apart from housing the players for over 100 days in bio-secure hotels and having online fitness sessions, the new campaign will have a shortened format divided into two different phases.
All the teams will face each other once during the first phase in a round-robin format. After every team completes 10 matches each, they will be divided into two groups for the second phase. According to the standings, the top-six teams will face each other once again, where the team with the most points after 15 matches will be declared the I-League champion and qualify for the 2022 AFC Cup group stage.
On the other hand, the bottom-five teams will play against each other once again, where the team with the least points after 14 matches will be relegated to the I-League Second Division. However, debutants Sudeva Delhi and developmental team Indian Arrows are exempt from the relegation process. If either of those teams finish last, then the team placed above them will be relegated.
“Even though this season will be the first without traditional clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, it promises to be competitive. Sudeva’s inclusion this year and Sreenidhi’s next season will help in creating newer fanbases in Delhi and Visakhapatnam… which goes along with our existing USP,” Dhar said.
Considering the bio-secure bubble and its travel restrictions, all the players are currently training in protocol-mandated six training facilities in and around Kolkata. Apart from regaining their lost fitness, the players will also have to deal with the psychological and mental pressures over the course of the season.
“Being confined in a room for more than three months will prove to be difficult for anyone. That’s why, keeping in mind the mental health of the players, we have set up separate recreational rooms in the hotels. Whether they want to hold a film screening or play on their PlayStations… it’s up to them. We also have future plans to have some relaxation time in the nearby Eco Park in New Town,” Dhar said.
In order to reduce the players’ time on their beds, the authorities also host daily sessions through video calling — yoga in the morning and fitness in the evening.
Now, what remains to be seen is whether the barrage of changes can provide yet another ebullient season, continuing the trend of having a new champion each time in the last five years. Although Fernando Santiago Varela’s Churchill Brothers and Jose Hevia’s newly-promoted Mohammedan Sporting are being touted as the title favourites, no possibility can be ruled out in this season unlike any other.
Mohammedan take on Sudeva Delhi at 2 PM IST, Punjab face Aizawl at 4 PM IST, and Gokulam Kerala go up against Chennai City at 7 PM IST on Saturday. The matches will be broadcast on 1Sports and streamed live on social media.