Scheduling logjam and players’ mental fatigue: ISL in a catch-22 situation as Covid cases spiral

As case after case of Covid-19 piles on in different teams in the Indian Super League (ISL), the reluctance of the organisers to postpone and conduct the league at a later date has now started to be questioned by players. Be it the Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri on Twitter, or another national team regular in Brandon Fernandes on Instagram, the little flares of rebellion are starting to grow day by day as the league continues to function as if everything is normal.

The reluctance of the league to postpone the tournament could also stem from the lack of dates available to reschedule the entire event. Initially, the ISL was to be held from November to March, with the season to be divided into two halves. This meant that organisers, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), could take over FIFA’s dates for international matches from January 24 to February 4. At the time, the move was panned because it would not allow the national team to get a camp before their AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

It was a schedule that was agreed upon by FSDL and All India Football Federation (AIFF), but one that national team coach Igor Stimac wasn’t very pleased about.

“If we are going to succeed in this qualifier, which are games to play outside the FIFA window, we need to sit down with other stakeholders in domestic competitions (read ISL), how much time the national team players will get for preparation,” Stimac said in October last year. “Otherwise, we are going to gamble, as simple as that.”

Thankfully for Stimac, the qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup were postponed from February to June but India has instead looked to arrange a couple of friendlies against higher-ranked opposition towards the end of March. Post-March, any attempt to reschedule the ISL would once again clash with any preparations that the national team could make for the qualifiers.

There is also the matter of the AFC Champions League, Asia’s premier continental footballing tournament. ISL champions Mumbai City were drawn alongside three-time UAE Super League winners Al Jazira, six-time Saudi league champions Al Shabab and Iraqi heavyweights Air Force Club on Monday. The group stages of Asia’s premier club competition will begin from April 7 at a centralised venue.

These are some of the reasons that have made the postponement of the current ISL season a tough conversation.

Player fitness

Apart from a logjam in schedule, there have been other factors that make the continuation of the league a problem.
While players have already started to speak up on the effects of a bio-bubble on their already strained mental health, the rescheduling of certain games might also physically affect teams at this point.

“Each match is assessed on a number of factors including the ability of the clubs to field a team; the severity of Covid-19 breakout at the club(s); and the ability of the club personnel to safely prepare for and play the match,” the Indian Super League had said in a statement earlier this week.

The ‘ability of the club personnel to safely prepare for a match’ is where things get a little murky. Take the example of Jamshedpur FC. Owen Coyle’s team is currently third in the league and within a few points of the top spot. But they have not been on a training pitch in the last six days and are now expected to play a professional football game.

Stating that a few players in his team had high fevers post their match against East Bengal, Jamshedpur went into a self-imposed quarantine in their own rooms.

“None of us have trained for the past 6 days. Obviously, because of precautionary measures, taken with respect to COVID-19. So that is something we have to be wary of. We have not been allowed onto the training field. So, my worry will always be players and their welfare in terms of injuries, that’s a huge concern for me. Because, when you train, you are in good condition to play the game and it is important to avoid injuries,” said Coyle in the post-match presser.

The organisers held a meeting with the CEOs of all 11 clubs on Sunday but no decision was taken on suspending the league briefly. Instead, the league will take a call on a match-by-match basis. However, with the number of Covid cases rising steeply in the last few days, there is increasing pressure on the league to provide more clarity over their rules, as evidenced by their recent social media posts by the players.

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