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Indian Football – In The Wake Of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic crawled past the streets of Wuhan, the world came to a shuddering halt; one of the worst victims claimed – the world of sports. Under Project Restart, one of the fastest sports to get back home has been football, but not quite exactly so.

Footballing, as we know it, is a game played beyond ninety yards, with sixty thousand heartbeats racing to full-time. As COVID-19 has imprisoned fans in their homes, the game seems to lack the pulse.

As nations like Spain, England, Japan, Germany, Russia and the likes embrace the game, India is likely to be a late finisher in this race. With more than four full months shaved off the season, training schools, clubs and academies – big and small have had to endure a torrid time all over the country. Most of these academies run on providing training to kids. Halted cash-flow and stoppage of matches across divisions have deeply eroded the thin margin this industry runs on. The same holds true for small-sided tournaments and nationally recognized grassroot events like Golden Baby Leagues that flourish during this time of the year in various parts of the subcontinent.

Another important implication of the pandemic has been the impact it had on people behind the glamour - broadcasting professionals, referees, coaches, and other people who supposedly make up the lower rungs of the ecosystem but play an important part in keeping the entire machinery well-oiled. Since most of these people work as freelancers, no actual game translates to no income. This, in strange turn of events, has remarkably revealed how fragile the system is.

While footballing has resumed in other parts of the world, we still must tread cautiously as India battles through the pandemic. In a nation where testing still hasn’t attained an adequate figure, getting back to sporting seems like a privilege.

However, there’s some silver lining in store for us. Recently, the AIFF has announced that the 2020-21 ISL season will be held between November’20 and March’21, with matches to be played behind closed doors initially, but critically dependent on how well the curve flattens. Another important event in the country's footballing calendar, the U-17 Women's World Cup, was set to be held in November’20, has now been pushed back to the start of next year, between February and March. Whether fans are allowed to throng the stadiums in the five host cities (Navi Mumbai, Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar, Ahmedabad, and Guwahati) is something that we will have to wait and watch, but the event, which is going to be the biggest in the country after the 2017 U-17 Men's World Cup, is sure to make noise.

Likewise, the AFC U-16 Championship’20 in Bahrain also has new dates with the tournament now scheduled to start on 16th September 2020. India has been drawn with South Korea, Australia, and Uzbekistan in Group C, also referred to as the group of death. Nonetheless, it is going to be an incredible opportunity for our youngsters to compete at a higher level and test their mettle.

Lastly, the Indian senior team is scheduled to resume their duties on October 8th, 2020 when they meet Asian champions, Qatar at home in a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying match. Thereafter, the team takes on Bangladesh on November 12th and Afghanistan on November 17th.

What comes in lieu of life is nothing. Right now, all we can do is pray and keep fighting through. With normalcy around the corner, a lot of lives would find meaning – the players, the support workers, the training clubs, the grassroots events, the tournaments, and most importantly, the fans.


Author: Sayan Chatterjee

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