The impact of Coronavirus in football has been unprecedented, shutting the game down all over the globe with leagues suspended and players and coaches left in a limbo. The case has been the same with India as well.
Though, thankfully, the domestic season was almost complete when the pandemic ended live football. However, the national team did suffer with their joint 2022 World Cup-2023 Asian Cup qualifying matches in March cancelled.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has now put out new dates for those matches, with India set to take on Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in October and November later this year.
However, the impact of Covid-19 has been different in each country and it could have an effect on the teams' preparations for the qualifiers. For example, the cases seem to have come relatively under control in Qatar while the count has kept on increasing steadily in India and Bangladesh.
As of Sunday night, Qatar has had more than 87000 positive cases of Covid-19 (more than 30000 cases per million) but the rate has come down, prompting the government to ease the restrictions. As such, the Qatar Football Association (QFA) has already started preparations to resume the league which was halted by the pandemic.
India, on the other hand, is still reeling under the increasing number of cases. The number of positive cases have already crossed the 400000 mark and is steadily rising. There is no sign of the curve flattening in the near future with most of the metropolitan cities overwhelmed by the crisis.
Bangladesh is also in a similar plight. They have more than 110000 cases, large for a country their size. For example, India has almost 309 positive cases per million while the figure is almost double (682) for Bangladesh.
Afghanistan have also been affected with more than 28000 cases, amounting to about 741 cases per million.
It looks highly uncertain that live football, or even training, might be possible in India and Bangladesh, or for that matter even Afghanistan, in the near future. In fact, the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) have not been able to take a decision on when domestic football could restart, despite the pleas of players and coaches.
Bangladesh's State Minister for Youth and Sports, Zahid Ahsan Russel, recently stated that it would not be possible to announce the timetable of the beginning domestic sports due to the crisis.
On the other hand, the relative abatement of the crisis in Qatar means that their league is set to restart on July 24, 2020. The Qatar Stars League (QSL) teams have already started training from June 10 after the authorities set out safety guidelines. The players and officials are set to undergo Coronavirus tests again in the coming week.
Qatar are aiming to complete their season by August 26, with the remaining rounds of the QSL set to be held at three stadiums having cooling technology - the newly launched Education City, Al Janoub and Jassim bin Hamad.
For India, the start of the new season is very much uncertain. It should ideally start in October or November but given the current scenario, it is unlikely that teams and players will get a proper pre-season by that time to regain their match fitness. The start of the new season is also uncertain and could be pushed back if the crisis worsens.
What this means for India is that by the time the World Cup qualifiers rolls along in October and November, Qatari players could be well ahead of their Indian counterparts in terms of match fitness. Whether India can actually hold a training camp or make adequate preparations for the qualifiers is also uncertain, given the travel restrictions and other limitations.
It could be that Bangladeshi and Afghani players' plight might be similar to the Indians. Though India's chances to qualify for the World Cup is over, they need to finish as high as possible to confirm their spot in the 2023 Asian Cup third round qualifiers. Else, they will have to play a play-off.
As such, every result, even against Qatar whom the Blue Tigers held to a draw away from home, will be important. India are currently fourth on the table with just three points from four games and need to finish third in order to confirm their spot in the third round of Asian Cup qualifiers.
The game against Qatar is set for October 8 at the Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar. However, Indian players have not trained outdoors since February and will need at least four-to-five weeks of preparation. It remains to be seen what the quarantine rules for each state will be for people moving from other states and whether it will apply to players coming in to take part in a training camp.
It is not easy in the current scenario and poses a lot of challenges to the authorities. Everything hinges on how the Coronavirus crisis plays out in the next few months.