The big news in Asian football this week is the start of the 2020 Chinese Super League (CSL) season on July 25, after a five month delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The competition should have originally started on February 22 earlier this year, only for the Coronavirus to throw normal life out of gear.
But the CSL is finally set to kick-off, albeit in a tightly-controlled environment with a several major changes to the format. Instead of the home-and-away system, the 16 CSL teams will be divided into two groups where they will play each other once in a round robin format. The top four teams from each group will then play a championship stage while the bottom four will play a relegation round.
All in all, CSL’s 2020 season is set to be completed in 70 days at two centralised venues behind closed doors. While one group will be based in Suzhou near Shanghai, the other group will play in Dalian.
All the games in CSL this season are free to watch via mobiles.
The Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League – India’s two top leagues are also set to play the 2020-21 season at centralised venues. The pandemic has eased in China which was the epicentre but India has seen record increases in the infection rate of late. As such, it could very well be the case that by November 2020 (which is when the ISL and I-League are expected to start), the All India Football Federation (AIFF) might well have to take a leaf out of CSL’s books when it comes to social distancing protocols.
CSL organisers have implemented extremely strict measures to create a bio-secure bubble in which all the various stakeholders will remain till the end of the competition. What exactly are these measures?
What is the Bio-Bubble in CSL?
All the teams have been housed in a sealed-off hotel at each venue – Taimei Xiangguli Hotel in Suzhou and the Crowne Plaza in Dalian. Moreover, the players will only be allowed to go to the stadium and the training pitch apart from the hotel.
How is the safety of the Bio-Bubble maintained?
All players, staff and anybody associated with the competition were tested for the virus before entering the ‘environment’. All overseas players were quarantined and tested before they were allowed to join their teams.
To be specific, everyone is required to complete one antibody and two nucleic acid tests within three weeks before arriving at the zone hotel, and only after passing these tests can they proceed.
1870 people have received Covid-19 tests in Suzhou and Dalian.
All living and match areas have been divided into Blue, Green and Purple zones.
Now, the stadium, hotel and resting areas of players have all been designated as blue zones. This is the highest level of epidemic prevention CSL has implemented. The referees, core match officials, players, club staff all fall in this zone. The blue zone is strictly isolated from the outside world and is subject to complete closure until the end of the tournament. Those in the blue zone cannot interact with anybody from a different zone.
Those in the blue zones move between the stadium, hotel and training facility in special vehicles.
Importantly, staff in the hotels who have to interact with the players also fall under the blue zone and must remain in it until the end of the tournament. Anybody in the blue zone cannot visit or interact with anybody, be it close family or friends, for the duration of the tournament.
Blue zone members cannot have food from the outside or have food delivered. They must eat from the dedicated restaurants at the hotel.
It must be noted that psychological counselling has been made available to everybody in the blue zone to deal with the mental stress such circumstances can create.
All those in the blue zone will be tested continuosly for signs of infection every week. The players will be required to use Alibaba’s remote conference platform DingTalk to report their whereabouts at designated times.
The green zone belongs to journalists and photographers mainly. The journalists also have to complete the testing protocols before entering the designated media hotel.
There are designated green zones inside the stadium for text reporters and fixed spots on the touchline for photographers who are not allowed to move around for photos. Of course, they cannot get anyway near the players or anyone in the blue zone.
Safe to say, there are no face-to-face interviews and all pre-match and post-match press conferences are conducted online.
The purple zone belongs to temporary employees who have been brought in for any special tasks.
How will those in the Blue Zone be entertained for the entirety of the competition?
The players will not be able to drink alcohol or coke at the hotels. However, for their entertainment, the hotels have been turned into miniature towns with cafes, hair-dressers, libraries and even convenience stores.
There are also various indoor games set up including video-game machines, karaoke, table-tennis and more.
Quarantine protocols and current state in Dalian
Of course, there are special quarantine facilities set up in case anybody is tested positive during the duration of the tournament. It must be noted that the city of Dalian has reported several positive cases in the past few days and as such, there is a bit of apprehension among the stakeholders.
Lessons for Indian football?
The rate at which the Covid-19 cases are rising in India, it is highly likely that AIFF might have to end up imposing strict protocols in order to smoothly conduct the ISL and the I-League for the upcoming season.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to see how the CSL unfolds over the next couple of months and how these protocols hold up.