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Sunil Chhetri: India still a long way off from restarting matches

"I know fans not coming to the stadium and watching is a great shame, but that's where we are right now," says Sunil Chhetri. Faheem Hussain / SPORTZPICS for ISL

India's football captain Sunil Chhetri says he was sceptical about the prospect of restarting sport without fans, until he saw Borussia Dortmund play FC Schalke in the Bundesliga when the German league restarted in mid-May. "To be honest, I was like, 'It [playing without fans] shouldn't happen.' I am a little old school -- so that was my first feeling, 'Kya karna hai yaar, bina fans ke faayda kya hai (What's the point of playing sport without fans)?'" he said. "But then I watched Dortmund vs Schalke, and I realised because I am a fan, how much joy a live football match gives you. I know fans not coming to the stadium and watching is a great shame, but that's where we are right now. At least give them something to watch on television."

Chhetri, who said Bengaluru FC hadn't started training yet, but were looking to shift to the Inspire Institute of Sports campus since that falls within a green zone for the state government of Karnataka, felt that India were still a long way off from restarting matches, the way that leagues in South Korea and Germany had done in recent weeks.

"The Korean League and Bundesliga are checking every player every single day before he trains. When they go to the match, they have already been tested that they have no virus. But you never know, because some can be asymptomatic. That's why, for a second layer of protection, they are saying don't hug each other, don't spit and stuff like that," he said. "But I think the first stage is training only. Matches are only once a week, but you train every day. It's going to be 30 players minimum, 12 coaches, a ball boy and a kit man. Everybody is going back home, and you don't know who they are meeting. You don't know who they are mixing with. But then again, you have to start."

Chhetri was addressing a webinar organised by non-profit organisation YUVA, which also featured cricketers Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan, besides reigning badminton world champion PV Sindhu and Olympics-bound rifle shooter Anjum Moudgil.

Sindhu suggested the coronavirus-induced lockdown had given her sport a perfect opportunity for associations to seek the feedback of players and coaches regarding safety, once competition resumes. "I understand that there are structures -- you can't go and meet others, and when you are playing, you can't shake hands with others, especially with umpires and opponents," said Sindhu. "You should be very cautious that the court is sanitized before your next match. I am sure these precautions will be taken, because the structure is fine right now. But once the tournaments start, it's a good platform for associations to talk to stakeholders."

Moudgil said that while shooting had a natural advantage over other sports in that there is negligible person-to-person contact in any case, the uncertainty over the schedule had made planning ahead difficult. "We haven't got any information about quarantine, because as of now we have no competitions for this year, and none for next year as well. Only thing we know are the dates for the 2021 [Olympic] Games, otherwise it is very uncertain for us," said Moudgil, 26, whose silver-medal finish at the 10m air rifle event in the 2018 World Championships had made her among the first Indian shooters to book her place for Tokyo. "The only thing we can do is maintain distance, wear the proper mask, and it's only when we get the proper calendar will we come to know about the things like travel, protocols about quarantine."

Sindhu felt playing tournaments without fans might need some getting used to, but it might also have a flip side for badminton players when it comes to communicating with their coaches. "I understand, in one way, a lot of us will miss the crowds. It's a lot of motivation when the crowds are cheering, but at the same time, every point is very important," she said. "It's important to focus, whether you are winning or losing. I think it is important to just be yourself."

Chhetri joked that with the fans missing from the stadiums, footballers may find it difficult to pretend to not be able to hear their coaches over the din of the crowd. "These superstars [Sindhu and Moudgil] play a game very nicely and they are very well-behaved, they don't abuse," he laughed. "So if there are no fans, people will get to know our vocabulary of abuses. We utter nonsense, but we are allowed to say anything, except to the referee. We are dirty, we are ugly. If the fans are there, they are loud, and it [the abuse] all gets subdued. But if they're not there, my god..."