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Sport, interrupted: A Bengaluru football club faces uncertainty

The Covid-19 pandemic hasn't just stopped sporting competition, it has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN will look across the sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

FC Bengaluru United (FCBU) were in the top four In their I-League second division debut season -- in-line for the playoffs (from which only one team is promoted to the first division) -- when on March 16, the tournament was stopped.

Gaurav Manchanda, owner of FCBU, said his first response to the shutdown was, "honestly, relief." Manchanda had tracked the Covid-19 data around the world and was worried about the possibility of cases that "arise and spread" out of a football game. "We are at the hands of something bigger than football and need to respect that."

Just a year old, established with the aim of "climb[ing] from the local leagues to the highest level of Indian football, build the local base organically," FCBU had been on track when the shutdown happened. 

Coach Gouramangi Singh, a former India international, understood the rationale but says, "You feel... 'Ah man. Worst timing possible.' We worked really hard, all of us, to get us into the season in the best possible way, so that we can see it through."

Season, interrupted

They are now taking stock and calculating their options. "Currently things stand suspended and unchanged," Manchanda says, with short term and season-specific contracts staying in place as they were with longer term and multi-season contracts being unaffected. "The club's financial management has from the start taken a very lean approach, more focused on processes and performance." The team has hired no foreign players as of this stage, Manchanda saying FCBU "does not follow a salary-heavy approach to building the team. We are performance-oriented with a proprietary incentive structure that incentivises players to give their best every minute of playing time."

Division Two teams are known to spend "up to Rs. 2 Cr. per season", says Manchanda, and FBCU had aimed to "to control the spend into areas that sustain multiple seasons and not just one season." With two matches to go in the season, the club's costs on hiring grounds and looking after pre-match and match-day logistics have, in fact, been reduced.

"A "significant budget" of FCBU's spend has been on the GPS technology and processes to make the incentive-structure work. FCBU uses StatSport and its wearable devices to measure player performances and offer tangible rewards. Like bonuses for assists and goals, clean sheets, victories, consecutive victories etc. The biggest bonus would have been for securing promotion.

Then came the Covid-19 dilemma: the uncertainty of the next move - what the AIFF will choose to do and from there, how FCBU should respond.

Uncertainty - this season, and the next

On April 18, AIFF announced that it was going to discuss with the Asian Football Confederation, the possibility of organizing a shorter duration tournament with the second division clubs to crystalise into a single team promotion. AIFF Leagues CEO Sunando Dhar said that considering the money the clubs have already spent, "It will be unfair on them if we now say, okay that's it, the league is suspended, come back next year."

It has been more than three weeks since the AIFF's announcement. FCBU and the other seven independent second division clubs (nine ISL reserve teams make up the 17-team second division), fighting for the single I-League first division spot, remain in limbo.

Manchanda said that the club's preferred path into the I-League top division would be winning the 2nd Division, but that the measures arising out of these unprecedented times have left them in a bind. Assuming the COVID-19 threat would last for the rest of the year, the club would like to go into the AIFF's proposed shorter tournament in August-September, with safely protocols in place.

He lists the protocols: "testing each participant, a closed environment tournament (no spectators, no extended staff etc.) and reduce unavoidable contact (handshakes etc.)."

If the risk continues to exist around the event, Manchanda then suggests a "mixed approach of merit plus direct entry conditions." Here, the top-four second division teams as of March 16, 2020 should be allowed to apply for a direct entry spot in the first division. "Selecting one team would then allow for a meritorious team with financial stability to enter the I-League. It would be very unfortunate if this year's season is considered void and is in vain with no pathway into the I-League."

Manchanda says FCBU's strong foundation has made them ready to participate in the First Division but admits they are also contemplating the corporate/direct entry option. "We aim to bring a Bengaluru team back into the I-League," he says. The direct entry route has opened up due to Mohun Bagan moving up into the ISL following its merger with ATK with the strong possibility that East Bengal would follow. This would leave nine teams in the I-League as opposed to the 11 of this season. Along with FBCU, Sudeva FC of Delhi have also indicated their interest.

Change in transfer market dynamics

Covid-19 is also expected to impact on global travel, making it difficult for overseas signings to participate in the next Indian season, which will lead to an upward spiral of Indian players through the leagues. In the light of this scenario, gaining early advantage in the transfer season would have helped, but FCBU also find themselves in no man's land when it comes to securing players by striking pre-season deals or agreements. If they are to participate in the planned AIFF tournament, what do they tell their players today, who may win them promotion into a higher league? When it is known, they will have to make wholesale changes in playing personnel. Which player could focus on promotion for a club he knows is going to release him? What if a handful of their best players needed for the top division get offers by bigger clubs in the interim?

This means the transfer window dynamics are even more complicated than usual. "We typically budget and build the squad for the upcoming season after the transfer window. We are uncertain at this point if we need to retain the same squad for the tournament or plan to build a squad that would also be competitive at the I-League, in case of a promotion. Both options have their operational and financial implications," says Manchanda

In the coming days, he says that FCBU only looks to the AIFF for, "clarity and a clear pathway more than anything else. It is times like these that participants in the ecosystem need to share the burden with no one party disproportionately affected."

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