I-League qualifiers: Indian football shows the way as mainstream sports return to India
The I-League qualifiers, slated to start on Thursday in Kolkata, is set to be an important moment for the entire Indian sporting fraternity in a post-COVID world.
When Bhowanipore FC's fixture against FC Bengaluru United at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan kicks off on Thursday afternoon, it will mark the resumption of live sports in India after all sporting activities were brought to a halt by the pandemic back in March.
To put it simply, October 8 is a big moment not just for Indian football. As such, numerous eyeballs from every corner of the country will be trained on Kolkata as the five teams in contention vie to land a spot in the upcoming I-League.
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With even highly popular tournaments like the Indian Premier League (Cricket) being held abroad, it is the humble 'I-League qualifiers' that has taken the first step towards the return of normalcy in Indian sports.
A lot of credit must go to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Indian Football Association (IFA) which governs football in the state of West Bengal for having swung into action in order to make the tournament a possibility.
Though the Government of India has allowed spectators to attend sporting events with certain relaxations, the I-League qualifiers will be held behind closed doors. And with good reason.
The pandemic has not eased off in the country and the AIFF and IFA have had to come up with a strategy to ensure the safety of the players, staff and officials during the course of the tournament which acts as a precursor to the I-League which is set to start in December.
Taking inspiration from the various top leagues around the world, the AIFF and IFA have implemented a Bio-Bubble and security protocols that have ultimately helped realise the I-League qualifiers.
The Chinese Super League, AFC Champions League and many other competitions around the world have adopted this format.
But more importantly, the I-League qualifiers will witness this model being implemented for the first time in India, across all sports, ensuring the tournament will be of interest to all stakeholders across the ecosystem.
Quarantining, virtual training sessions, social distancing measures, isolation from the outside world - it has all been a novel experience for the players and coaches of the teams playing in the I-League qualifiers.
"Coming into the bubble, the first four days were difficult. Sitting inside the room by ourselves. So we had virtual sessions. We had no one to learn from. Now others are learning from us," said Yan Law, Mohammedan Sporting head coach in a virtual press conference on Wednesday.
Despite the challenges, the return of football and sports is vital to not just the players and staff but also numerous others from various walks of life who depend on sports for their livelihoods, as aptly observed by Bhowanipore FC head coach Sankarlal Chakraborty.
"Great thing is that football is starting. The livelihood of a lot of people depend on this and not just that of players and coaches," he said.
Even as the I-League qualifiers provide us with a glimpse of what the 'new normal' is, the tournament is also clearing an important path for Indian sports.