Getting into the forensic details of the bubble breach like a cop that he once was, a visibly shattered India coach Thomas Dennerby blamed the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for ‘destroying’ his team’s dream.
In a no-holds-barred interaction, the 62-year-old Swede said the continental body was ‘unprofessional’ in the manner in which the bio-bubble was handled, accused them of a delay in informing about the positive cases at the Indian team hotel and being unwilling to engage in a ‘solution-oriented’ discussion.
On Sunday, India were forced to withdraw from the Asian Cup after the team could not name at least 13 players, mandatory as per rules, for their Group A match against Chinese Taipei following a Covid-19 outbreak within the squad. As on Wednesday, Dennerby said 19 players and six officials were infected.
Speaking from his hotel room in Navi Mumbai, where the entire team is in isolation, Dennerby said the team and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could’ve done nothing more in terms of taking precautions. “Honestly, we are not happy with the AFC’s tournament organisation and lack of solution. In one way, it destroyed our dreams,” he said.
The 12-nation competition is being held across three venues in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Pune. A Local Organising Committee was managing the on-ground logistics in the build-up to the tournament but it is learnt that the team hotels were chosen by the AFC following an inspection and the bio-bubble protocols, too, were set by them.
Dennerby gave a day-by-day report of the team’s activities from the time they landed in Mumbai on January 13. The team had taken a commercial flight into Mumbai from Kochi.
Once all players tested negative, the team held its first training session on the evening of January 14. On January 16, the first case of Covid in a squad player who had entered the bubble by then, was reported within the team. Then, on January 18 when everyone had to undergo a mandatory pre-match RT-PCR test, the team’s physio, strength and conditioning coach, and one player tested positive.
The physio and the strength and conditioning coach, Dennerby added, had been working closely with the hotel staff, which was tested on January 17. This was ominous given that the support staff interacts with most team members. Seven staff members were infected, the 62-year-old Swede said, but the hotel was informed only on January 19, even though the AFC knew it a day prior.
“Did they understand this was not good? The AFC should have called the hotel directly and asked the (infected members) to leave and have no contact with the players. But they did not, that was a mistake. I think that was an unprofessional way to handle it in an AFC bubble, no explanation can be good enough.”
The situation worsened for India after the goalless draw against Iran, he said, adding that ‘not many players were feeling good’. The following day, on January 21, the players were tested again ahead of their match two days later and that resulted in seven more positive cases. In the interim, two players suffered fractures, thus ruling them out of the competition and further reducing India’s playing options.
“What was AFC waiting for?”
Once it was clear on matchday that India would not be able to field the required number of players, the team management, according to Dennerby, informed the AFC about the same. Eventually, the Asian federation called off the match at the kick-off time, 7.30 pm. “What was AFC waiting for? If AFC already sent us out of this tournament, why do it this painful way? No respect, no compassion, no empathy…”
On Monday, the AFC said that India’s results would be considered null and void, marking a heartbreaking end for the hosts, who were playing in the Asian Cup for the first time after 19 years.
Dennerby said he tried holding an online meeting to talk with his players after the team had to withdraw but the poor internet connection in the hotel meant even that wasn’t possible. “Eventually, I sent a message on our group. It was a heartbreaking time,” the former Sweden and Nigeria coach said. “This is my worst feeling as a head coach ever. Me and the team are devastated. Our dreams are forever killed.”
In an emailed statement to The Indian Express, the AFC said they were ‘deeply disappointed with the unexpected and sad turn of events’ but did not address the allegations made by Dennerby.
“The AFC has successfully conducted major tournaments across Asia in the face of serious challenges posed by the pandemic by implementing strict medical and health protocols that are in line with the host country’s medical regulations,” the AFC said. “We will continue to focus on delivering the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022™ in close collaboration with the AIFF and the LOC by prioritising the safety, health and wellbeing of all the players, officials and stakeholders.”
The India coach provided a day-by-day account of the team’s situation from their arrival in Mumbai on January 13 to the time they were forced to withdraw from the Asian Cup:
January 13: The team takes a commercial flight into Mumbai from Kochi. Players tested at airport, all negative.
January 14: First training session held under lights in Navi Mumbai.
January 15/16: Another round of testing; first positive case detected in the team.
January 17: Team hotel staff, who are a part of the bubble, undergo RT-PCR tests as per rules.
January 18: Players and team officials, undergo mandatory pre-match testing. The team’s physio, strength and conditioning coach, and one player test positive.
January 19: Seven members of hotel staff test positive. According to Dennerby, though, there was a one-day delay from the AFC’s end in informing the hotel about the cases.
January 20: India play Iran. After the match, several players start showing symptoms.
January 21: Another round of Covid testing takes place on players and team officials.
January 22: Number of positive cases increase to 10. Two players, meanwhile, have fractures from injuries suffered in the first match.
January 23: Two hours before the Chinese Taipei match, at 5.30pm, players are tested again. Two more players test positive, taking the tally to 12. At 7.30pm, match is called off.