Bhogtoram Mawroh is naturally disappointed by the recent decision to cancel the Shillong Premier League and lower divisions this year. He explains why he thinks the call was a mistake…

2020 has been an unprecedented year in that the entire world has been shut down by the minutest of life form, a virus, more specifically the Covid-19 virus.

Highly contagious, it brought all activities to a standstill including sport. The football season in some countries like France and the Netherlands was cut short while others decided to postpone it. Recently in Europe the season was restarted with Liverpool winning the English Premier League trophy for the first time in 30 years. For a Liverpool fan like me it was a momentous occasion and we were so glad that the season was not cancelled. Liverpool would still have been declared the champions but it’s always nice to win it by actually playing the game rather than by default like it happened to Paris St Germain in France.

However, no sooner had I got the good news of Liverpool becoming champions, a bombshell was dropped by Shillong Sports Association, who decided to cancel the entire local football season for the year. I think this is the wrong decision and it only brings out the problems that plague the game in our state.

Meghalaya has one of the lowest numbers of Covid-19 cases in the country and with each recovery the numbers come down. There are those coming from outside the state who bring the virus with them, but until now the government has done a very good job in making sure community transmission is prevented. With time the lockdown would have been further relaxed. Also it’s only six months into the year with another half still remaining. In a couple of months the rains would abate and with further relaxations it would have been a perfect opportunity to restart football.

There are several reasons why the SSA may have cancelled the league this year and the main one might be the infrastructure not being ready to hold matches. After winning the SSA election the new president SK Sunn had enthusiastically announced that First Ground would be ready for the second round of the 2019 SPL. I knew I should not trust a politician making promises but I had hoped that for something that we all love so much the promise would actually be delivered. Unfortunately my hopes (with those of many football lovers in the state) were dashed and even if there was no pandemic I can say with absolute certainty that we will not see any competitive game at First Ground for at least a couple of years. As for the JN Stadium there has been a lack of maintenance over the last three months because of the lockdown. Well, now relaxations are in place and I am sure if they start cleaning up the place the stadium would be ready in a couple of months. So cancelling the season because of the infrastructure not being ready is a weak argument. In the case of First Ground it shows a culture of apathy towards sports in the state and for JN Stadium it’s pure reluctance to take responsibility.

The other reason could be a lack of sponsorship and absence of ticket sales for revenue. I don’t go to all the games but whenever I do to the crowds were always sparse. You tend to see the same people coming to watch the game and barring few matches (especially when Malki or Ryntih were involved) spectators were few and far between and I don’t think social distancing would have been an issue. There was a lot of space for that. And you could always limit the number of tickets for sale if there was a chance of a large crowd. If relaxations were in place I would definitely go for the game. When that happens I would expect face masks to be worn all the time by spectators, hand sanitisers at the entry and toilets being cleaned (finally!). I am sure that wouldn’t cost a lot. Also I am sure the SSA would still have to pay recurring costs so the little revenue that they could have got would have helped a bit. With the National Games on the horizon (hopefully we would have found a vaccine by then) the state government could have lent some support. Maybe the government resources which are being spent for propping up the prospect of a party in other states can be diverted to supporting a game which could bring a gold medal for the state.

But even if spectators were not allowed it was a good opportunity to maybe try telecasting the game on local TV channels. I think they do that in Mizoram. They could have hired local contractors for that thus creating an employment opportunity at the time when the economy is in a slump. And if this worked it could be good promotion for the league, which could bring in more spectators in the future to the ground. I use to hear a lot from some of the old timers how engaged the people were in the past with the game. Now the response is lukewarm. If the people are not coming to the game, why not take the game to the people? When you are confined to your home but still have the opportunity to watch players like Kitboklang Pale, Donborlang Nongkynrih, Padam Chettri, Frolicson Dkhar, Oresterwell Langshiang, Sangti Janai Shianglong, Brolington Warlapih, Fullmoon Mukhim, Sheen Sohktung, Samson Nongrum, Stephanson Pale, Gladdy Kharbuli and others it will be absolutely fantastic. And I am sure if those who love the game but don’t come to the ground can see these players on TV they will come next time when things are normal.

Also if that worked the financial sustainability of the SPL would be secured. Fruits of such initiatives will take time but these are long-term goals which the pandemic has provided an opportunity to initiate. If not now then when? History tells us that once things return to normal it will be business as usual. And what the pandemic has shown is that there cannot be a business-as-usual attitude anymore.

There was an announcement that Ryntih were planning to gain entry to the I-League. As far as I know football in India has not been cancelled for the entire year as yet. I feel that Ryntih need a little more creativity if they want to do well on the national stage and have a little more flexibility in tactics. That would require that they play a lot of games to try some new players, combinations and get used to match situations in case they get the nod and the I-League starts. Unless they have a proper season behind them, they will go unprepared and they will fare badly. Lajong stayed in the I-League for 10 years, Rangdajied United were evicted because of paperwork and Royal Wahingdoh removed themselves ostensibly because of lack of vision on the part of the All India Football Federation. This means that teams from Shillong have always been able to hold their own whenever they have played at the national level. I am sure with the players Rynith have, some additions and tactical changes they can stay in the league for a long time. But it cannot happen without players getting good game time under their belts. Since cases are low and further relaxations will be forthcoming Ryntih would be more ready than some of the other teams if the season were not cancelled. That could have been advantageous.

Lastly there is the issue of the players losing an entire season’s wages. With opportunities already limited, it is a big blow for the players. Staying fit when you are not playing any games is all the more difficult and without any source of income it’s going to become so. There are numerous stories of sportspersons all over the world being depressed because of this disruption. I am sure the same is true for many of our players and I am sure quite a few are feeling stressed at the moment. Counselling can be a solution (and if anyone feels low I suggest them to go for counselling with the Meghalaya Progressive Counsellors Union being a good option) but eventually doing what you love is more sustainable. Pay in lower divisions is abysmally low, in fact below minimum wage. This has to change soon and social security for players has to be discussed. The career of a footballer is very short; any injury during this period could have long-term impacts on their life after the game. Players need more support. This cancellation will add to their woes.

If the cases were high and relaxations were not forthcoming I would have understood the season being cancelled. But the cases are among the lowest in the country and there’s still a lot of time left. With the monsoon ending in a couple of months it will be a beautiful time to play and watch football. If Meghalaya keeps up its good record in forestalling the coronavirus, things will become more normal. And nothing will give an impression of normality than the ball being kicked around the stadium. The decision to cancel the 2020 season is a hasty one and only reveals the fatalistic mindset in which the game finds itself in the state. I think the decision should be reconsidered. Let’s not decide now but wait for some more time.

(TSR file photo)

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