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Global Virus vs the Global Game: How Will Community Football Clubs Survive?

India’s football season was drawing to a close when Covid-19 shut sport down. The results of the remaining fixtures, therefore, were of all the more consequence. Mohammedan Sporting and Sudeva FC were hoping for an I-League future not too far down the road. Now they find themselves, like much of the world, in suspended animation. This is their Coronavirus story so far.
The Mohammedan Sporting clubhouse has been shut and all football training suspended

The postponement of all football activities by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) meant Mohammedan Sporting, who play in I-League second division, went into a limbo, enforced by the lockdown.

Mohammedan Sporting’s general manager, Wasim Akram, was at the clubhouse when the match they had looked forward to for a month, a chance for revenge in the I-League 2nd division, didn’t arrive. They’d lost to Hyderabad FC Reserves at the Gachibowli Stadium last month. For the return fixture, they would be at home. Except, everyone was home. Akram was alone at the club shutting things down. For 90 minutes of retribution, they would have to wait a while. How much is a while, no one knows.

“It is a great decision to cancel the games, and postpone them. It is the correct decision, in lieu of public health, safety of players, it's just common sense,” Akram says. “But in the same breath I must admit, my heart sank when it was announced. For us, a club working on bare minimum, the postponement is disastrous.”

When did it all become real for you? Was it when the footage from Wuhan, of deserted streets became mainstream? Or when online ordering turned into IRCTC bookings? Was it when the videos of the gaumutra party started circulating freely on social media — prompting the question ‘is this what the apocalypse will be?’ Maybe it was those lonely Italians, locked in, singing to each other from their balconies, like this was Mad Max, the musical. Perhaps it was this weekend, when you suddenly realised that there was nothing to watch on the sports channels. The background noise of packed stadiums, reassuring and calming, shut off from real life. 

For Akram it was when the words ‘suspended with immediate effect’’ were spelt out on his phone screen. Because in the lower leagues of football — far from the top echelons of million pound transfers — suspended means extended. And extended means a budgetary stretch that could see clubs staring into the abyss.

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Mohammedan Sporting has no official sponsor. Their budget is funded by 35 club committee members, and is tightly controlled to manage not just the first team but also the age-group teams and staff who work the club premises. The postponement of all football activities by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and the subsequent circular issued by the government banning mass gatherings and events, meant the club went into a limbo, enforced by the lockdown.

“For now all our players have been asked to stay at home, stay away from social contact and take basic measures,” Akram says. “Even before the directives had come through we were conducting practice sessions every alternate day and doing medical checks regularly to spot any aberrations. But now the club is basically on leave.”

Except, enforced leave is never enjoyable. 

“You miss football anyway, and at this sort of time you start missing it more,” midfielder Satyam Sharma says. Satyam is back home in Siliguri to be with his family, rather than stay cooped up in a rented apartment in Kolkata. Company helps keep up spirits. “It’s like being injured, except you are not. Or rather everyone is,” he says. “You can stay fit, exercise on your own. But after a while your day feels a little bit empty.”

The clubhouse, like everywhere else is empty. Two employees come everyday to update their website and social media feeds, otherwise everyone is staying put. Akram himself has not been to the clubhouse for a few days now. He has bigger concerns. 

“Imagine running a household with a fixed budget for four months. Then suddenly someone tells you that actually you may have to go like this a while longer due to a crisis. How will you react?” Akram asks. 

“This postponement means extending the season, which means that our budget has to be extended to cover that period of time,” he adds. “It is not like we can tell the players that they won’t get paid because they aren’t playing. We have to pay them. And we will continue to pay them till the season starts again and is finished again.”

As easy as it is to say sport doesn’t matter, the truth is for a huge number of people, sport does matter, if only because it gives them employment and pays the bills. For others, those paying the bills, decisions taking around sport revolve around decisions of economics. It is easy to say that short termism is the cause for the strife at Mohammedan. But the truth is a majority of football clubs work this way. For them competition is existence and existence is competition. Budgets and sustenance revolve around the two. 

Even long term plans don’t easily work out. For Anuj Gupta, co-owner of Delhi-based Sudeva FC and president of Spain’s CD Olimpic de Xativa, the Coronavirus crisis meant shutting down and enforcing a lockdown on two clubs, even as the money spilled out through two taps. While India has enforced sport cancellations over the past few days — the Delhi government ahead of most — the Spanish football federation called off football indefinitely till the beginning of April.

“Well, to be fair, the town of Xativa doesn’t have any cases. And the mayor had reacted much before the national government did, enforcing physical distancing and isolation,” Gupta says, “Obviously we shut down all activities inside the club, and now we wait to see what happens.”

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Local players went to their homes and stayed put. Coaching staff were advised to stay away, while the club’s facilities were locked down. CD Olimpic de Xativa has Indian players on their team — a idea that is central to Gupta’s concept of developing players — many of whom turned back home. For Gupta, who sponsors the accomodation and the food for the Indian players — selected from the Sudeva academy — their return and no firm date on the restart meant giving up on the facilities he had booked for the entire season. 

“I’ve had to give up the houses rented for them, and will probably have to foot the bill on those houses for the time period they were locked in,” Gupta says. Most of the Indian players have returned, and those still in Spain have been quarantined in a holding house with Playstations to keep them occupied. Indoor training routines have been prescribed but all of it can only go a certain way before the ache to return to the field — or even home — sets in. Gupta’s big concern, though, is what the implications could be for the rest of the season.

“The truth is, if the season stops as it is, I will understand the reasons for it,” he says. “But it will also raise a lot of questions. If we play behind closed doors then that is 10% of the revenue that we get from ticket sales, gone.” 

In addition Gupta is concerned about a lack of information on how the Spanish FA will  proceed if the season is indeed cancelled. Clubs in the lower divisions are given payouts by the federation to aid development and keep them afloat. In case of a cancelled league, the federation may incur huge losses of its own — broadcasting, advertising revenue, salaries, tickets and so on. Will they be eager to dole out money to the lower leagues then?

The story doubles down in Delhi, where Sudeva’s residential academy is in lockdown, no one in, no one out. Co-owner Vijay Hakari has, for precaution, turned the facility vegan -- eggs, meat and milk, the three products they relied on from outside sources have been cut off. They had stocked up on supplies right before the hit, at the beginning of the month and can ride out the storm with that till then. It is the playbook of the apocalypse.

At Mohammedan, the apocalypse has only just begun. Satyam hopes the season doesn’t get called off, his concerns more footballing than anyone else. “We’ve worked hard all season, to get promoted. There has, and I’m not just saying this for the sake of drama, been a genuine desire to get promoted and the team’s results have been a validation of that. If it ends like this…” he sighs audibly.

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But if it does come back on, then to what end? “Two months more will really stretch us to our limits,” Akram says again glumly. The academy has been shut, the age group teams have been sent to their homes. “We hope the federation or even the government can step in and help out clubs like us, who will really struggle financially because of the cancellations, but for now I can’t say.” 

Truthfully, there is little chance of that. The AIFF ensured that its flagship product the Indian Super League (ISL) didn’t suffer from the  postponements, handily extending the postponement date till the final had been played, even if it was in front of an empty stadium. If they go about handing lower division clubs handouts who is to say I-League teams won’t ask for them either, because in Indian football the margins between the monied and the poor ends at the top level. Clubs will struggle on, as they have for years. This is a new crisis, just like the old crisis. 

“To be honest, I just don’t want to read this news anymore,” Gupta grimly says. “It is important to get some positive energy and I have decided I’m going to avoid reading anymore about the coronavirus. No overthinking either. As much as I know this won’t change anything on the ground, at least it will keep spirits up.” 

Gupta knows there is no help coming for him from anywhere nearby, and so is relying on his own facilities to keep things ticking. There are no academy visits for him in the near future, but he is spending the time looking over papers figuring out the next big step for the football club — the I-League.

Akram has a similar purpose. Mohammedan are top of their group, with half their fixtures played. They should be able to ride this out comfortably. But doubt creeps in. “The main thing I guess is to just go ahead with what the situation is currently and hope things will get back to normal soon. And when it does, hopefully we have to be back too. It will be tough, but we will have to. We always have.”

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