Former Hero I-League winners Aizawl FC are raring to go for the upcoming 2020-21 campaign that kicks off on January 9, 2021, with experienced midfielder Brandon Vanlalremdika, stating that his team are high on confidence ahead of the new season.
“I have played for Aizawl FC previously as well but this time, it’s a new season and a new team. We are a young side. We have been practising well in pre-season and as a team, we are high on confidence ahead of the new Hero I-League season. I want to win the title this year as it will mean a lot to the club, to the people and for us as a team,” he stated at the club’s Virtual Media Day on Sunday (January 3, 2021).
The 26-year-old, who played a key role in Aizawl’s historic league triumph in 2016-17, returns to the club after a gap of three years. With the upcoming season being played in Kolkata within a bio-secure bubble, Brandon stated that his past experience of playing in the city is something he will share with his teammates.
“I have played in Kolkata before and I can share my experience with my teammates also. It will a plus for the team. The boys have experience of playing in different parts of the country and adapting to the conditions here in Kolkata shouldn’t be a problem,” he averred.
Another member of the title-winning campaign, defender Lalthakima Ralte will turn out for Aizawl FC in the coming season and stated that their best to finish on the top of the points table.
“It’s a pleasure for me to play for Aizawl FC. We are a well-balanced team. We will try our best in the coming season and we want to finish on top of the table,” he said.
The 23-year-old also shared that the players are in good shape after their quarantine period and looking forward to starting the league.
“In quarantine, we had our personal training in our rooms. We are maintaining our fitness well and we hope that we will do well once the matches begin. We have a lot of fans back home in Aizawl who were looking forward to seeing us play but without them, we will try our best to make them proud. We know that they will be supporting us from home and on social media,” he expressed.
The side from Mizoram is in action against Punjab FC in their first match of the Hero I-League 2020-21 on January 9, 2021, which will be played at the Kalyani Municipal Stadium at 4 PM IST.
Having arrived in Kolkata for the 2020-21 season of the Hero I-League, forward Avdic, who has played in several countries like Serbia, Malta, Austria, Montenegro, Kosovo and Sweden, says that it did not take him much time to accept an offer from India.
“When I received the invitation to be part of the Chennai City team, I accepted without much thought. With the desire to meet a new continent, a new culture, a new way of life, thinking, new temperaments, I think it is a great experience in the life of a man. It is something I will tell the children,” Avdic said to i-league.org.
Indian football has moved forward together in the last few years, and defender Elvedin Skrijelj has been impressed with the talented players on show in the subcontinent.
“The football we played back home in Serbia was of high quality. But when I came to India, I saw that there are a lot of talented young players here too. We will all try to help each other and work towards the collective goal,” stated Skrijelj.
Midfielder Vladimir Molerovic has also been impressed with the level of football played in India, though he did feel that it would take some effort to acclimatise to the local conditions.
“Football here in India is at a high level, similar to what we have in Serbia. There are some very good players here,” said Molerovic. “But, obviously, there are a few differences in terms of climate and culture and food. But as a player, we all need to adjust to that and make the best possible result. We are professionals and we are ready to adapt to all the challenges that await us.”
Chennai’s three Serbians have arrived in India at a time when many activities have been curtailed due to the spread of the Coronavirus. However, Indian football has moved forward together, when the Hero I-League Qualifier was held in October 2020 with all the safety precautions being incorporated into the Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs).
Much in the same manner, the Hero I-League 2020-21 will also be played within a bio-secure bubble, keeping the safety of the players, officials, and everyone involved around organising the matches at the forefront.
Avdic believes that these new protocols are part and parcel of the game as long as the pandemic lasts and that it is up to the individuals to adjust to that.
“The conditions are the same for every one of us in every team. We all have to follow the safety protocols. The Coronavirus has been with us for almost a year now, and hence I have taken my mental preparations before coming here,” he stated. “Being aware of the SOPs and the competition system has helped me get into the mindset, and I’m now fully focused on the job ahead.”
A friendly warm-up match played between Sudeva Delhi FC and Gokulam Kerala FC ended 2️⃣-1️⃣ in favour of the side from Delhi today.
Shaiborlang & Ajay Singh scored for SDFC while Emil Benny found the net for GKFC
A debtless Indian football club with an associate in Spain, an all-Indian roster of players and a coach from Bhutan—there’s more to Sudeva Delhi FC than being the first team from the capital in the history of the I-League and its predecessor, the National Football League, which started in 1996.
The Indians-only squad, clarified club co-founder Anuj Gupta, is not a fixed idea. “That will depend on whether I want to win the league or stay in the league. This year, I want to see how an Indian contingent performs against those with foreign players (a team can sign four imports). But the winners of the 2021-22 will qualify for the ISL (Indian Super League), we have been told. I want to go to ISL,” said Gupta on a Zoom call.
Sudeva Delhi FC’s Indian squad has players with experience of being part of clubs such as East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC. These players will blend with eight academy graduates, some of whom were part of the first trials Sudeva had conducted in January 2015 for a residential academy in Delhi and for the 2016 under-15 youth national league. Goalkeeper Sachin Jha is among those who have been with the club from the first day, said Gupta. Among players from Delhi are midfielders Mohit Mittal and Ansh Gupta and goalkeeper Ashish Sibi, he said. “While it is important to have local connect, it doesn’t mean we need to recruit locally only. We have players from 11 states,” said Gupta.
Appointing Bhutan’s Chencho Dorji as coach was a decision forced partially by soccer economics. “We could have gone for an Indian coach but because their numbers are less, the salary component becomes higher.
“Chencho has done the majority of his coaching courses in Japan and the way he has developed the team since joining in 2019 is really commendable,” said Gupta. Assisting Dorji is Pushpender Kundu who played 11 years with Delhi club Hindustan FC.
Gupta and Vijay Hakari, his partner at the club, grew the age-group teams and when they bought Delhi’s Moonlight FC in 2016, the players got a platform to perform beyond youth leagues. “One step at a time, from academy we had a club in the Delhi league,” said Gupta. There have been many examples of clubs zooming to the top tier and fading out, usually because of financial problems, so it was important we worked from ground up, he said.
Crucial to sustaining this model was buying majority stake in Spanish third division club Olimpic de Xativa in 2018. One of the goals is to provide a pathway for Indian footballers to Europe, said Gupta. The other is generating funds. In Delhi and Xativa, Gupta and Hakari run residential academies where 80% cadets pay and play, the others being on full scholarships. Residential programmes in Delhi cost between ₹5.6 lakh to ₹6.82 lakh annually, according to the club’s website. The charges listed on the website for the 10-month programme in Xativa is between 24000 to 30000 euros. “That helps us subsidise running the academy and helps in funding losses, if any, at the club. We have no third-party debt,” said Gupta.
Sudeva will kick off the new I-League season on Saturday afternoon when they take on Mohammedan Sporting at the Salt Lake Stadium. Mohammedan are returning to the league after earning promotion from the 2nd Division League.
Football Delhi president Shaji Prabhakaran said Delhi, where AIFF is headquartered, missing from the country’s top flight has impeded the sport’s growth. Not having a team from Delhi reduces the value of a league, he said. Since Delhi Dynamos moved to Odisha in 2019, the country’s top competition, the Indian Super League, has no team from Delhi.
“For football to grow in India, special focus is needed on the two most important cities, Delhi and Mumbai,” said Prabhakaran in a separate Zoom call from Delhi. According to an August 10 Mint report that tracked the geography of growth in India, Delhi’s average annual GDSP (Gross Domestic State Product) growth between 1980 to 2014 was 7.6%, the highest in the country. Together, Delhi and Maharashtra contributed 18.1% to India’s GDP in 2013-14, the report said.
Among reasons listed by Prabhakaran for Delhi not being on India’s football map were the lack of sustained success of clubs from the state and the absence of a competition structure that would motivate teams to look beyond the local league. So, any club that wants to grow in Delhi needs to give itself a minimum of 10 years, said Prabhakaran, a former Fifa Development Officer who has also worked in the AIFF.
Hopefully Sudeva Delhi FC will motivate other clubs to aspire for I-League, said Prabhakaran. “We shouldn’t have to wait 25 years for another club from Delhi.”
After the successful completion of the Hero I-League Qualifiers 2020 in October, the Hero I-League is set to kick-off from January 9, 2021, as 11 teams fight it out to be crowned champions in what promises to be a unique and special edition of the competition.
Similar to the Qualifiers, the upcoming campaign will be played across 4 stadias in Kolkata and Kalyani, under the bio-secure bubble for the teams and organizers owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the length of the competition and number of teams increasing significantly as compared to the qualifiers, AIFF Leagues CEO Mr. Sunando Dhar stressed on the importance of “teamwork and cooperation” in making the organization of the Hero I-League a success.
"With the number of teams going up from five to 11 and the number of days from 25 to 100 (in comparison to the Hero I-League Qualifiers), the maintenance of the bio-bubble and coordination between the teams and organizers will be critical,” Mr. Dhar said.
“Cooperation from the participating sides is vital to maintain the bio-bubble and in order to ensure a successful event, all parties have to come together in a team effort and move forward together," he added.
The 11 teams have been divided across two 5-star hotels in Kolkata -- with RoundGlass Punjab FC, Indian Arrows, Chennai City FC, TRAU FC and Churchill Brothers FC in one hotel, while Real Kashmir FC, Mohammedan SC, Gokulam Kerala FC, Aizawl FC, Sudeva Delhi FC and Neroca FC are housed in the second.
The teams began checking-in to their respective hotels and entering the bio-secure bubble from December 26 onwards, after which they immediately began their period of seven days of mandatory quarantine.
Prior to their check-in, each member in every team has to have three successive negative COVID-19 RT-PCR tests, the samples of which have to be taken ten, six and two days prior to them entering the bubble. After checking in, the teams will be tested on the second and fifth day after them entering the bubble, followed by regular tests every 5-6 days and regular monitoring of body vitals.
Each team has been allocated a total of 20 rooms in the hotel, with the addition of a separate medical/physio room for every side. For their quarantine, a comprehensive list of dos-and-don'ts has been given to each team as well.
The housekeeping staff attending to the rooms will also be a part of the same bio-bubble and will be tested on a regular basis every 3-4 days. Other support staff such as drivers, security personnel and other hotel staff will also be tested regularly.
Meals were provided to the rooms during the quarantine period and after that, players and staff members with negative test results can begin gym and outdoor training sessions. A comprehensive schedule consisting of the meals (four-times-a-day), gym and training timing and venues will be prepared on a weekly basis in coordination with the teams, while ensuring that all the safety norms of the bubble are followed with regards to security, movement and sanitization.
In order to maintain the bubble, dedicated pathways and elevators have been demarcated along with signage and security at entry and exit points. For dining halls, there is another set of detailed procedures and protocols to ensure minimum contact and maximum safety, such as the partition of halls, regular sanitization.
"Safety of all players and officials is our top-most priority and there can never be any compromises in that regard. The medical protocols and SOPs has been framed by the AIFF, in consultation with various medical experts and COVID-19 safety guidelines framed by the World Health Organization (WHO), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, AFC and State Government of West Bengal, etc," Mr. Dhar informed.
In case of a positive test result for any team member, he or she will have to undergo a 17-day period of quarantine – either in the same hotel on a different floor, or in an outside facility.
In order to re-join the bubble, the person has to have two successive negative RT-PCR tests. However, if the individual was in isolation outside the hotel, he/she needs to undergo a compulsory 5-day quarantine in the hotel upon check-in for him/her to rejoin his team.
A new additional feature from the Hero I-League Qualifiers is that each team has to assign a minimum of one 'outside-bubble' member, who would be the club's 'connection' to everything outside the bio-bubble.
Mr. Dhar explained: "One room has been allotted outside the bubble to each team and it is mandatory for them to have at least one person assigned who will keep them in touch with the outside world and have duties such as organizing transport, managing the equipment, collecting and sending couriers, etc."
"I thank the IFA (Indian Football Association) -- our local association, and the West Bengal government for their continuous support. Hosting and organizing the Hero I-League Qualifiers would not have been possible without the combined efforts of all three parties, and now we look forward to a successful Hero I-League as well,” the League CEO expressed.
The Hero I-League kicks-off on January 9, 2021 with a mouth-watering triple-header as debutants Sudeva Delhi FC take on newly-promoted Mohammedan SC at the iconic Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan on the day. In the other two matches, RoundGlass Punjab FC face Aizawl FC and Gokulam Kerala FC going up against Chennai City FC at the Kalyani Municipal Stadium.
The matches will be broadcast live on 1Sports and streamed live on social media/OTT platforms.