View: I-League – The trials and tribulations of domestic football in a post-pandemic world

In March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the entire country went into a lockdown, the sports industry was halted dead in its tracks. The I-League could not escape its immediate fate as we learnt the harsh truth that a global viral outbreak does not stop to recognise the long-standing legacy of institutions.

For the first time in its history, the I-League season was curtailed and suspended, with a quarter of the season yet to be finished. Mohun Bagan were declared Champions for the 2019/20 season as the club had an unassailable lead with four games to go.

However, that remained the only conclusive outcome of the season, as the remaining teams were not accorded a league position for the 2019/20 season. Following the prize money awarded to the Champions, the remaining pot was distributed equally among the rest of the teams. No prize monies were awarded for individual achievements, which can naturally be a cause of disappointment for many of the players involved.

The I-League found itself facing a challenge where the nature of the competition – the prime reason for football’s popularity world over – itself stood compromised.

The pandemic brought with it a wave of uncertainty about what the future holds for Indian football. In September 2020, the I-League qualifiers were staged in a bio-bubble in Kolkata, at a time when live sports events in India either remained suspended indefinitely, or had to look at avenues abroad to return to competition. Becoming the first federation-led tournament to be held in India since March 2020, the I-League qualifiers gave us a sense of what to expect from the future as we beckoned the ‘new normal’ in the sporting world.

The bio bubble was planned – the first-ever in India, and even among most countries in Asia. All India Football Federation (AIFF) backed our operational instincts and moved forward together. Since then, lives have been lived mostly in a bubble. The first bubble of the I-League Qualifiers was followed by bubbles in the I-League, the Indian Super League (ISL), and even in the prestigious AFC Champions League group stage, that too at a time when the second wave broke out.

Even as the AIFF and the I-League paved the way for a gradual return to competitive domestic football, the situation was less than ideal for the clubs.

The 2020-21 season was played entirely behind closed doors across four venues in Kolkata, bringing a forced shift from the traditional home and away format. The teams could no longer count on the support from their fans during home matches, and also lost the matchday revenue that caused a significant dent in clubs’ finances. Gate receipts constitute a big chunk of each club’s earnings.

Having no fans in the stadium resulted in reduced direct interaction and engagement between supporters and their favoured clubs. A spill-over effect was felt in the decreasing merchandising revenue for the clubs.

Since the economic implications of the lockdown were severe across the businesses, the I- clubs faced an uphill battle to raise sponsorship revenues from corporate partners. Meanwhile, the I-League faced its own set of challenges, as the conduct of the league saw a substantial 50% escalation in costs, incurred almost entirely on implementing Covid-19 healthcare protocols.

In the face of these unforeseen challenges, the I-League found much-needed support from Hero MotoCorp — title sponsors of the I-League since 2014 — and FIFA, the governing body of world football that provided aid to each of its 211 member associations in the form of a Covid Relief Fund.

With the financial backing, the first objective of the I-League was to provide aid to the clubs and mitigate the effects of the severe economic implications caused due to the pandemic.

To this effect, the AIFF and the I-League committed to look after the significant expenses incurred by the clubs for the 2020-21 season. This includes accommodation in a secure bio-bubble for a period of three months, and logistics and operations in terms of transportation and the cost of booking stadiums for training for each club. This enabled the clubs to operate on a reduced budget at a time when domestic football is still grappling with multiple hardships in an ongoing pandemic.

The I-League received operational expertise from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), who organised two timely workshops to navigate member associations through the process of implementing a secure bio-bubble. By December 2020, the AFC had already demonstrated their expertise in conducting a major tournament in a bio-bubble, when they concluded the remaining portion of the 2020 AFC Champions League in Qatar. The information shared in these workshops has been immensely helpful, as we implemented a similar plan for the 2020-21 I-League season.

Lastly, it would not have been possible for us to get the I-League show back on the road and resume domestic football in India without the support of the AIFF operational staff present on-ground to ensure the smooth conduct of the league. At the end of the day, these are the people who are putting their hand up in incredibly testing times to make the I-League possible in a post-pandemic world and take Indian football forward.

(The writer is CEO, Leagues and Development at AIFF)

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