The 2020-21 season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is just days away and it’s expected to be bigger and better this time.
The inclusion of two of Indian football giants Mohun Bagan - who will compete under their rebranded name ATK Mohun Bagan - and East Bengal is sure to add some spice to the contest. But what makes it special is the concerted effort from the clubs to add quality to their squads.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic means that ISL 2020-21 will be played within a bio-secure environment with the matches being held behind closed doors in Goa.
While it’s a move away from the normal, the clubs are happy with the steps that the league organisers have taken to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
“I think the league has planned things in the right manner,” says the Bengaluru FC CEO, Mandar Tamhane. “I think ensuring safety is the right direction to take in terms of the primary goal in executing the league. Kudos should be given to the league.”
Tamhane, who’s been involved with Indian football for over a decade, believes that though the steps taken are in the right direction, the ground reality could be a bit different. And it's evident in the constant changes made to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) as the days pass by.
“It’s new for them (ISL) and they are evolving, improving certain decisions that they took in the beginning. At the ground level, it’s all about altering things as you go.
“The ultimate goal is to ensure that the safety aspect is taken care of and that clubs are given the support they need,” Tamhane says.
Over the past few months, the ISL has been in constant touch with a handful of European league organisers to study and understand life in this ‘new normal’.
While their strategic partnership with the Premier League in England has helped, the ISL hasn’t stopped there.
“The league has taken the best practices that were carried out not just in the Indian Premier League (IPL) but also various leagues that were played once things opened up,” says Tamhane, who’s been in the know-how of the development.
“We have seen talks with the Bundesliga and the Premier League, and even MLS (Major League Soccer) and NBA (National Basketball Association) in the USA. I think they (ISL) have been very constructive in their discussions with various organisers across the globe.
“The AIFF (All India Football Federation) has played a part in organising calls with the league organisers in South Korea as they were the first ones to start (in Asia),” he points out.
ISL’s four-tier system
Having consulted with a number of stakeholders, the ISL has chalked out a system that everyone involved with the league is expected to follow this season. This will see people involved with the ISL divided into four tiers with rules varying for each.
The top tier - Tier I - will include the players, first-team staff and their families, while the second tier will be made up of people who liaison with members in the top tier.
The third tier will be made up of club’s staff members and everyone who requires operational access to the field of play, competition area, delegate area and the media tribune. Meanwhile, the fourth tier will include people who have their access restricted to the stadium alone.
Members in the top tier have to undergo three compulsory rRT-PCR tests and are allowed inside the bubble only if they return negative. Once inside the bubble, they undergo another set of tests every third day to ensure that the exposure to the coronavirus is minimal and is kept in check.
While the rule remains the same for those falling under Tier II, for Tier III members, an rRT-PCR test is conducted every fifth day while people falling under Tier IV will be monitored using the ISL Health App.
Moreover, no media will be allowed inside the stadium on matchdays this season, while the mandatory pre-match and post-match press briefings will be held through video conference.
Should a member from the bio-bubble test positive for the novel coronavirus, the organisers are expected to take further action depending on the severity of the case.
“The decision will be taken on a case by case basis,” says Kartik Menda, the team manager and the head of first-team operations at FC Goa.
“While the member (who has tested positive for COVID-19) will be self-isolated, the first step is to go about doing another round of rRT-PCR test and an antigen test for the team. The further course of the action will depend on the results of these tests.
“With respect to the player who has tested positive, if it’s a severe case and if they need to be hospitalised, then that would be the case. Or if you need to have the guy or a bunch of guys isolated, then that would be done.”
While the SOPs and the guidelines are out for everyone concerned to see, the teams have ensured that they take special care in implementing them without fail.
“We have been on top of this from the day we entered into the bubble. The league has laid down guidelines for the operations inside the bubble as well,” Menda shares.
“Something as basic as all the equipment needs to be cleaned and sanitised before and after every practice session. The buses that the team uses need to be cleaned after every use with a particular solution. Everyone needs to carry a hand sanitiser and should wear a mask.
“I think it also helps that people are aware of how dangerous this disease is. That goes a long way in ensuring that health and safety measures are followed well,” the FC Goa official says.
With heightened safety protocols and best of measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19, ISL 2020-21 looks all set for kick-off.