HomeSportsFootballI-League resumes with a clutch of new signings

I-League resumes with a clutch of new signings

The 2021-22 I-League resumes on Thursday but since only six of 114 games were played on two match days in December and Kenkre FC are yet to get on the pitch, this feels almost like a new start. In the 65-day pause caused by Covid-19 breaching the bio-bubble in Kolkata, teams have rebuilt rosters and Churchill Brothers got a new coach. Defending champions Gokulam Kerala’s coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese wasn’t the only one who said teams are better prepared now than last year.

The last person connected to the league left Kolkata in the second week of January after testing negative for Covid-19. The league could hold games on December 26 and 27 before Covid-19 cases started being reported in three hotels the 13 teams were lodged. Following a peak of 45 cases in the bubble, the league was suspended for six weeks on January 3.

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“We could have resumed a week earlier but decided to wait out the municipal elections in West Bengal,” said Sunando Dhar, CEO Leagues and Development of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

Dhar said AIFF was never in doubt of restarting. Dr Harsh Mahajan, who is a member of the AIFF medical committee and on whose recommendation the competition was suspended, had studied the pattern of the Omicron variant in South Africa and was confident that cases across India would dip in four weeks, said Dhar.

Unlike Indians Arrows, the AIFF’s development squad, which shifted to Bhubaneswar and trained without a break, some teams gave players a week off before resuming sessions. “Sometime we did two sessions a day in Hyderabad,” said Sreenidi Deccan FC coach Fernando Varela at a virtual media conference on Wednesday. “This break should help us improve,” said their Ghanaian defender Mohamed Awal.

For Rajasthan United goalie Vishal Jon, the two-month stoppage was a “blessing in disguise” as it gave the new signings time to bed in, having played their first match with nine players because of a registration problem. Among the seven players Rajasthan United signed during the break was Pedro Manzi, whose goals helped Chennai City win the title in 2018-19, replacing Marcelinho who had joined NorthEast United in the Indian Super League.

In December, Sreenidi had two foreign players. Now, they have four after defender Hamza Kheir and forward Ogana Louis joined. Each team can sign a maximum of six imports, of which one has to be Asian, but play four.

Twice champions Churchill Brothers added forward Komron Tursunov, who had scored against them after a 23-pass move by Mohun Bagan in 2019-20, central defender Momo Cisse in the January transfer window and replaced Romanian head coach Petre Gigiu with Antonio Rueda of Spain. Gokulam Kerala retained only Afghanistan international Sharif Mukhammad and recruited four foreign players: Slovenian centre-forward Luka Majcen, striker Jourdaine Fletcher from Jamaica, Cameroonian centre-back Aminou Baba and David Simbo of Sierra Leone who can play in defence and midfield. They also got central defender Pawan Kumar from Real Kashmir and goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar from Sudeva Delhi FC.

“For sure, we have prepared better,” said Annese, 37. The Italian accepted that stopping and starting again is difficult for teams “but we changed some players, played friendly games and worked on our psychology.” Gokulam’s target, like most teams, is to qualify for the championship round as one of the top seven teams after a round robin league and, “then win it. Again.”

RoundGlass Punjab FC gave players four weeks off before resuming training in Kolkata in early February. It was almost like having two pre-seasons which coach Ashley Westwood said was “different”. Punjab FC, he said, had originally planned 11-12 weeks of pre-seasons in October.

“We did lose a little momentum as compared to where we were before, but we are quite happy with how our mini pre-season has gone…It is challenging but part of the game in these Covid circumstances,” said Westwood, who won the I-League twice with Bengaluru FC.

The 2pm and 4:30 pm kick-offs can be a problem for teams, said TRAU FC assistant coach Surmani Singh, especially those from Manipur “where it is a lot cooler” but “we will adjust.” TRAU added Brazilians Douglas Santana and Fernandinho in January.

The teams checked into the bio-bubble in Kolkata on February 20 and 21. They were allowed to train after a week’s hard quarantine and after returning three negative RT-PCR test on Day 1, 4 and 7. During the competition, test will be conducted every three days. Testing protocols and bio-bubbles have led to the league’s budget ballooning from 12-13 crore in pre-Covid times to 22 crore this term, according to an AIFF official who did not wish to be named. Staying in the bubble has its own challenge but as Mohammedan Sporting’s midfielder Nikola Stojanovic said: “We have waited too long for this. Can’t wait for tomorrow.”

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