THE ONGOING CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS impacted Indian sports across all fronts, including the topmost sports cricket and football.
As multiple sporting leagues across the world including many Asian football leagues, European leagues, the American NBA and other sporting events have been suspended or postponed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, measures have also been taken in India to make sure sporting events don't become a platform where the virus can spread further within the populace.
First, it was decided to postpone the FIFA World Cup / Asian Cup qualifiers involving the Indian national team, as part of a larger preventative step taken by AFC and FIFA. Then, Indian cricket came into focus as the BCCI announced that Indian Premier League would be deferred by 17 days. The start date of IPL 2020 has now been set at 15th April.
Yesterday, a letter from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports directed all sports bodies in the country to ban public gathering around sporting events. The remaining matches of the cricket series between India and South Africa, scheduled to take place in Lucknow and Kolkata, have been called off.
The AIFF, too, took note of the situation and it was announced that the ISL playoffs final match between ATK and Chennaiyin FC, scheduled to take place on Saturday, would be played behind closed doors.
Today, the AIFF has further announced that the remaining matches of the ongoing I-League will be played behind closed doors as well. A statement from the Federation said,
"Adhering to the advisories issued by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, All India Football Federation has decided to complete the remaining matches of the 2019-20 edition of the Hero I-League behind closed doors. Besides team officials and players; match officials (referees), medical staff, TV Crew, accredited media, and required security staff -- none would be allowed to be in the premises of the stadium on match day, and during official practice the
The spectator ban also affects the iconic Kolkata Derby, which as of now is scheduled to be played on Sunday between arch rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Being the host club, East Bengal had asked AIFF to consider postponing the match, since the ticket sale revenue from the high profile encounter would be lost otherwise. But the Federation decided to end the season as per schedule and even resolved to try to finish it earlier than originally scheduled, as no one can presently predict how long the preventative measures against the virus would have to be maintained, and how bad it can get.
However, at a meeting with state sports bodies held in Kolkata, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee opined that I-League matches in the city should be postponed instead of held behind closed doors since the "emotions of the people are intertwined with the game."
The AIFF top brass took the proposal and other surrounding circumstances regarding the virus outbreak into consideration and reversed its earlier decision to hold matches behind closed doors, choosing instead to suspend the I-League till 31st March. A statement from the Federation said,
"Adhering to the advisories issued by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, and directives from several State Governments, all footballing activities under the aegis of AIFF stay suspended till March 31, 2020. All India Football Federation understands and prioritises the importance of human health and life, an area which AIFF will never compromise upon. The AIFF will take a stock of the situation in the last week of March, and take a decision abiding by directives from relevant authorities at that juncture."
The Kolkata Derby, the last of this season, had seen high ticket sales both online and offline in the past couple of weeks since the tickets became available, with the clubs expecting a sold out crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday.
The decision to postpone the Derby has come as a bit of a relief to the home club for the match, East Bengal. The possibility of the match being held at a latter date in front of a full crowd means they will not have to refund the large sum raised through ticket revenue so far.