With the caveat that if force majeure is invoked midway, or after 55 games, the team topping the standings will be declared winners, the seventh edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) will start on Friday. A continuation of that clause states that the top two teams in the league will then get Asian competition slots in 2022.
Those aren’t the only firsts in India’s top football league in the time of a pandemic. ISL7 has expanded to 11 teams leading to an increase of 20 games from last term’s 95. The league will also include two of Asia’s oldest extant clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
Mohun Bagan’s merger with ATK in January fused last season’s I-League and ISL champions. “The idea is to keep both in first position in football in India and if possible in the continent,” said ATK Mohun Bagan coach Antonio Lopez Habas on Thursday. With two titles for ATK, the Spaniard is ISL’s most successful coach.
East Bengal joined late after birthing a new entity with a cement company. ISL understood the power of fans of these clubs when an advertisement had to be removed because Mohun Bagan supporters stormed social media saying it was in poor taste.
ISL6 ended behind closed doors in Goa last March and it is there the new season will begin without spectators. “This is what I call Covid football, players will have to find their own motivation,” said Habas. All games in three stadiums–the opener between ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters will be at GMC Stadium in Bambolim with games also scheduled in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda and Tilak Maidan in Vasco–is another first caused by Covid-19.
It meant teams doing pre-season in Goa after completing a fortnight’s quarantine. It also meant the league having to procure letters from the union home and external affairs ministries allowing the entry of foreign players and coaches. The letters were sent to different Indian embassies to smoothen visa requirements before travel arrangements were made through air bubbles.
From air bubbles the players went into bio-secure bubbles where teams may have to stay for six months. “It is very difficult for technical staff and players because it is necessary to have contact with family and friends,” said Habas, 63 and a grandfather. Another team official though said: “This question will be pertinent only around December-January. Now, everyone in our team is eager to play, eager to train because they haven’t done either for most of the year.” The official requested anonymity as he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Like in IPL, the T20 competition which ended in UAE earlier this month, team rooms have also been created to give players down time.
ISL7 has created a four-tiered bubble with players, coaching, team and hotel staff and coach drivers in tier 1. ISL staff are in tier 2; teams’ operations staff and vendors in tiers 3 and 4. The tiers don’t overlap and those in the first tier are tested for Covid-19 “every two-three days,” said the team official.
Like in IPL, where two cricketers from Chennai Super Kings tested positive during pre-season training, two players from NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) had Covid-19 even though they were asymptomatic. The players were shifted to another hotel and NEUFC resumed training on Thursday after everyone else including staff returned negative tests.
Even though the start has been delayed by a month due to the novel coronavirus, teams have had around three weeks of pre-season. “It’s not ideal but it is what it is,” Robbie Fowler, the Liverpool legend who is SC East Bengal coach, told this paper in an interview.
“After such a short period of practice, there is the possibility of players getting injured easily,” said Habas who will miss Jobby Justin after the Indian striker was ruled out of the season with a ligament injury last month. “It is very important to have a good squad in this situation because we will need to rotate more this season.”
A spurt in migration from Australia’s A-League to ISL is another first. Barring Chennaiyin FC, each team has at least one player from A-League.
“It’s because the league is okay and they fancy their chances…Maybe it wasn’t the first option but…regardless of what country they are from, will benefit the ISL,” said Fowler.
Disagreements between A-League and Fox Sports over the broadcast deal has led to pay cuts and many players have subsequently opted for a passage to India. ISL mandating registering an Asian player too has contributed to teams signing Australians.
Churn of coaches
Among things that have remained the same are teams changing coaches. Barring Habas and Bengaluru FC’s Carles Cuadrat, no coach has been retained. “It is very difficult for another coach who hasn’t trained in ISL earlier,” said Habas.
Seven of the 11 coaches are from Spain and there are 23 Spanish footballers–the most from any foreign country–in this edition followed by 10 Australians.
Teams failing to meet Asian and Indian licensing requirements too are pre-Covid phenomena. Five ISL clubs–Odisha FC, NEUFC, Kerala Blasters, Hyderabad FC and SC East Bengal–failed this time and will have to play after seeking exemptions. Kerala Blasters, whose coach Kibu Vicuna helmed Mohun Bagan to the 2019-20 I-League crown, have failed the test for three seasons; Hyderabad and Odisha for two.
FC Goa partnering RB Leipzig continued the trend of European clubs associating with ISL. Bengaluru FC-Rangers, Atletico Madrid-Jamshedpur FC and HFC-Borussia Dortmund also have knowledge sharing agreements. Last year, City Football Group, which also owns Manchester City, bought majority stakes in Mumbai City FC.
With no games in 2020, India coach Igor Stimac will be watching how Sandesh Jhingan and Jeje Lalpekhlua cope with competitive football. Injuries kept Lalpelkhlua out since April 2019 and Jhingan from October last year.
“My aim now is to try and make Jeje a better player. If I can make him a better player, that’s beneficial to the Indian national team,” said Fowler after Lalpekhlua joined SC East Bengal.
“I think Sandesh has the same chance as other players. He was injured for nearly as long as they didn’t play due to Covid,” said Habas of his star signing.