Olympics Begin In
Begin typing your search above and press return to search.


ISL: Survival of the fittest — Players and teams prepare for a season like no other

Under the circumstances, ISL players and teams are trying to think out of the box as it may well come down to survival of the fittest.

ISL: Survival of the fittest — Players and teams prepare for a season like no other


Published: 11 Nov 2020 4:36 AM GMT

Football, like everything else in this world, is still reeling under the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the aftermath of the lockdown, its curtailments have resulted in the restructuring of the Indian football calendar. As such, the Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season, despite the addition of an 11th team, sees it start delayed by almost a month.

The seventh ISL season’s window has been set for November 2020 to March 2021 — which could be changed depending on when the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) organises its continental competitions. This edition will effectively be five weeks shorter while the number of matches will be more than any of the editions so far.

Of course, the addition of centenary-old Kolkata giants SC East Bengal to the league as the 11th team means that the number of matches will go up to 115 from 95 (including the playoffs).

ISL, a couple of weeks back, announced the fixtures of the first 55 matches of the tournament, with much hype and grandeur, marketing the brand new Kolkata derby (Mohun Bagan has also entered ISL this season having joined hands with three-time champions ATK FC) as much as can be done. However, it seems no one spared a moment to think what the players would have to deal with.


ATK Mohun Bagan play their first 10 matches within 53 days, SC East Bengal have it far worse. Their first match is on November 27, 2020 and their tenth is on January 9th, 2021, 44 days in between. Last season’s shield winners FC Goa have 11 games in 45 days scheduled till January. On paper at least, these illustrate the breathless nature of the schedule.

In effect there will be no relaxation of the fixture for the clubs, rather, this season will be more intense than ever. There could be an argument that the league’s schedule has always been pretty much the same with teams playing matches every 3-4-5 days. However, few will disagree that this season, the competition itself will be much higher, compared to previous seasons given the influx of several high quality foreigners from the A-League and other top-tier leagues.

“It's not going to be easy because the fixtures are going to be a little cramped. But it's all about staying fresh, you know, physically and mentally,” Mumbai City FC’s Bartholomew Ogbeche admitted in an interview with The Bridge recently.

“And now is the time... You know, we have a very short preseason, now is the time to suffer, suffer in taking all the heavy work, because afterwards it's going to be playing games and playing games, and recovering in between. So yeah, it is going to be very challenging. Not just for us, it is going to be the same for everybody alike. But I am sure we'll find out the right way for all of us to. And I'm talking about Mumbai City, we will find the right path, to find the right ways and right things to do to recover. So we can be fresh for games.”

atkmb ATK Mohun Bagan players in training in Goa (Source: Twitter / ATKMB)

The work-load will test all the clubs because pre-season, usually a six-to-eight-week period, has not been as per convention this year. This time, it has been effectively cut into half, for some teams even more. Thankfully, ISL will allow a team to make a total of five substitutions in three intervals for every match, which should allow players to recover during the season. But that does not solve the pre-season problem.

Pre-season is one of the most important phases for any campaign as it is during this period that the players, coming back to the pitch after a lengthy break, build up their core fitness for the season to come. Training sessions during this time are catered such as to reach peak fitness.

“It’s a small pre-season, but it’s the same for everybody else. Every other club is in the same boat as well. And then there’s other players that are still arriving and still in quarantine. So there are no excuses,” East Bengal’s big signing Anthony Pilkington countered in a recent interview with us.

“There’s no excuse,” he repeated. “You want to be the fittest team in the league. And you want to be the hardest working. It doesn’t matter. And you’ve got to work hard every day when you step on the training pitch. You have to look after your body around the hotel, you have to look after yourself.”

But then again you can’t possibly fit in 2 months of pre-season into 3 weeks. Given the work-load, the number of injuries could go up massively and the physicality of all the players will be much more significant for the upcoming season. Bengaluru FC head coach Carles Cuadrat could not agree more when asked about it.


“Physicality will be important, especially at the beginning,” he told The Bridge. “But I am happy with the speed we have had with the Indian players to start training so early, and how professional and strict with weight and physical work our foreign players have been during their time off.

“Some of them have even arrived with a lower fat percentage than they had last season, and this after not having competed for 7 months! That shows the commitment they have with their work and the desire they have to be at a good level this season.”

Indeed, players of all clubs have maintained fitness levels through lockdown as best they could (barring a select few who look a little healthier in the training photos). The clubs themselves ran individual programmes or Zoom sessions orchestrated by their medical departments. And one look at a video uploaded on Bengaluru FC’s social media profiles, that one of Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Suresh Singh Wangjam showing off their abs, is a testament to Cuadrat’s words.

One thing that many would miss (but Ogbeche didn’t, because come on, when does he ever miss?) is that with a much shorter pre-season, it is challenging for the coaches and physios to get the programmes right. As the former Kerala Blasters striker explains: “This is a short preseason, it’s difficult for us players but you know, the coaches know they are aware of that. But it’s really, really difficult for them. For them to put their ideas and everything in place, in such a short time, it’s difficult. But we don't have a choice."

Ogbece Ogbeche in action in a pre-season friendly (Source: Twitter / Mumbai City FC)

“It's about doing a little bit of everything and hopefully, you know, they can give us and give us information in this short period of time. So we're doing a little bit of everything, I can assure you,” Ogbeche added.

Truth is, under the circumstances, everyone is having to improvise. Previously, clubs would go to Spain or Thailand or Dubai for pre-season, play a few friendlies there before returning to India for the final few weeks of training. This season, but, things are different.

In a post COVID-19 landscape, all players and coaches and staff have had to be quarantined upon their arrival to Goa. A few foreign players, like Fran Gonzalez or Kristian Opseth, and coaches, like Odisha’s Stuart Baxter or Chennaiyin FC’s Csaba Laszlo, have only got out of quarantine this weekend, barely just 10-12 days before the season starts. Consequently, clubs have had to plan as per their needs.

ATK Mohun Bagan FC, one of the genuine title contenders, were the first ISL team to get most of their foreign contingent assembled in Goa. Antonio Lopes Habas was the first coach to take charge of his team but despite their unrelenting preparations, the Green and Maroons are playing only one conventional friendly, against FC Goa, whom they replay on December 15 in the league. Other games have been played on the quiet and behind-closed-doors at their training base.

Bengaluru FC, meanwhile, had the initial part of their pre-season in IIS Bellary before making the trip to Goa, and they are playing only a couple of friendlies. Clubs like FC Goa, Mumbai City, Kerala Blasters have four friendlies each in their schedule.

The thing is every club is trying to think out of the box. After all, they are entering the unknown together and by the end of it, it may well come down to survival of the fittest.

Also read: East Bengal beat Kerala Blasters in a pre-season friendly, all results and fixtures

Next Story