Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Indian women's football team head coach Thomas Dennerby criticised the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) after the hosts' unfortunate exit from the AFC Women's Asian Cup on Sunday due to a major COVID-19 outbreak. He read out a statement detailing the timeline of the events and slammed AFC for their handling of the bio-bubble.
"To all players and staff, I am extremely proud of you all. Super professional, each and every one, so thanks to all. The [AIFF] have done a very great job supporting the women's team. Nothing more could have been done. And no one from the federation could have changed this situation, so big thanks to everyone involved.
"Honestly, we are not happy with the AFC tournament organsiation or the lack of solutions or active dialogue. We think that in one way [they] destroyed our dreams. But we are not blaming the whole AFC organisation. AFC is a good organisation in total.
"This is my story, from the head coach's perspective. My feeling is that the truth must be told. It's not about blaming any particular person, only about justice for the team and federation.
"First of all, we have strictly followed AFC protocol. No doubt at all. A background: We started our camp on August 15, 2021. Everyone tested negative. Since that day we have had approximately 100 football sessions, 40 strength sessions, 40 running sessions. We have also played internal games, seven international matches, and four games against club teams. With the aim and target to reach the knockout stage in the Women's Asian Cup.
"During our preparation time, we travelled to UAE, Bahrain, Sweden, and Brazil before we finally entered Kochi for the last camp. We have been PCR tested all over the world. Not the smallest sign of a positive test. Only because of our discipline and passion for this tournament. So after more than 200 training sessions together with technical meetings in the classroom we were finally ready for the tournament. After 150 days in the bio-bubble, we were finally ready to move to Navi Mumbai.
"The day we moved to Mumbai, on January 13, we were once again tested at the airport, before we could leave to the hotel in Navi Mumbai, erected by AFC. When we arrived, all of us went directly to our rooms, all in single rooms. We all stayed in our rooms, waiting for the test results. All of us were aware that travelling was probably the weakest point. But it all went well again and all players and staff were negative. All good. Finally safe in the AFC bubble.
"Here we are in the AFC tournament bubble, the hotel bubble, all safe ready to start training again as soon as they let us out. All COVID negative, with positive minds. After all the tests have arrived negative, the staff started preparing for the upcoming training sessions, [they] started to unpack all the equipment, and built a new gym in the gym hall. A lot of hotel staff -- five to six persons including team India coordinator helped us to get adjusted. They were moving treadmills and cross trainers and so on. All together in a small gym, but most importantly, the girls [players] stayed in the room, all the time.
"On the 14th evening, we started with the proper training sessions again. Between the sessions, the girls were not allowed to leave the rooms. The discipline was definitely good -- all meals in the room, very strict.
"On the 15th, we kept on with this strict attitude. Always in the room, except during the two training sessions on 14th and 15th. On the 16th, we had a really good training session and later we were tested again after three days at the hotel. At that time, the first case of COVID positive was detected. That means the first case happened on the same day we came after quarantine. How is it possible? First feeling, it must come from someone inside the bubble.
"On the 17th, we tried to prepare for the game in a normal way. New situation, but still ready to perform. Quick replacement of the positive player.
"On the 18th, we had our afternoon session and in the evening we were tested again, pre-match testing. Three new cases of positive COVID detected. Our physiotherapist, our strength and conditioning coach and one player [tested] positive. Our physio and S&C coach were working very closely with the hotel staff when preparing the gym. Coincidence or not?
"Now we come to what I feel is the upsetting part of this story. What we didn't know was the hotel staff were PCR tested on the afternoon of the 17th. The result was sent to AFC on the 18th. After that AFC did not send the report to the hotel until the 19th. Around 1:30 PM. A whole day later. Test results... seven hotel staff infected with COVID. Seven. Seven staff including team India coordinator, kitchen staff, chef, housekeeping, service staff. All the ones taking care of us. Cooking the food, serving the food, cleaning our rooms while we were inside, isolated in our rooms.
"Relevant question -- why didn't AFC send a report immediately to the hotel? Why wait a whole day? Did they understand this was not good? Probably, but not action at this time. AFC should have called the hotel directly, and asked the [positive cases] to immediately leave the hotel and have no contact with the players whatsoever. But they did not. This was a big mistake. Why were they not tested every third day as the team? No test for the hotel staff done between the 11th and 17th, what we know anyway. I think that was an unprofessional way to handle it in an AFC bubble, a championship, a WC qualification [on the line].
"What really hurts a lot is that AFC is trying to blame us. I think that is a shame. The only response we get when we are trying to have a dialogue is 'we have followed protocol. Read article 4.1 of Special Rules.' But how do we know if it's true or not? And later on, we heard from other sources, that also two AFC staff were infected. We don't know exactly, but there is a chance we don't have the right information from AFC.
"From my side, the biggest problem is that the AFC were not at all interested in having a discussion, how to handle this embarrassing situation. No emotion for the players, no understanding about human beings. Teams need to come together for training and meetings, AFC staff can stay in their room alone... and if you don't difference between a team and a single person the problem is even more huge.
"So under the circumstances, we tried to prepare our team in the best way possible for the match. Already now without one of our starting XI.
"On the 20th, we played the game against Iran, the result 0-0. Good performance, but not able to score. After the game, we already understood that not all players felt good. I didn't have a good feeling about the next PCR test.
"On the 21st morning we had a session with substitutes, and in the evening we didn't have any afternoon session and in the evening was pre-game testing again. Next morning, the result came and seven new players were infected with COVID. Total of eight at this moment. At this time we also have two players out with foot and leg injuries -- confirmed bone fractures. So already 10 players are out for the next game vs Chinese Taipei. Now only 13 players, the absolute minimum according to the rules.
"Still on January 22, new tests were done because of the situation. Two more players are positive. Total ten players were positive, two out with fractures. Only 11 ready to play the game on the 23rd. We immediately informed AFC without any delay. Well aware about the article 4.1 of Special Rules.
"Since this painful moment, we have tried to have a logical and reasonable dialogue with AFC, but AFC kept on responding with the same strict answers - 'You need 13 players available for the match. Alternately, 4.1 shall apply. Read article 4.1.'
"We only have 11 players available, so what can we do in this hard situation. Next morning on the 23rd, we had more players with body aches and fever. Rapid Test taken. Positive. Two more players are probably out. New PCR tests done... now during this time something very strange happened. An answer from the tournament director arrives, around 11:59 AM, seven and a half hours before kickoff, when they already know we have only 11 players ready. 'It is ultimately the decision of your team whether to bring those players to the stadium or not.... As long as these two [injured] players are available, we will leave it to you if they wish to sit on the bench or remain in the team dressing room before the match'.
"This answer arrived from AFC when they already knew we had two players in plastic casts, and 10 COVID positive. During the day, the girls were sitting in the rooms. Heartbroken, no answers. 'Match, no match? Shall I prepare, shall I not prepare?' At 5:30 the PCR test results arrived, and in total we ended up with 12 players with COVID and two injured. Only nine players left.
"Relevant questions -- why wasn't the match against Chinese Taipei cancelled earlier? What was AFC waiting for? If AFC already sent us out of this tournament, why do it this painful way? No respect, no compassion, no empathy.
"Did AFC want to look like fools? Bringing two players in wheelchairs with plastic casts to the match? Is that showing the team respect? At this moment [26 Jan], we have 19 players and six staff infected.
"Really heartbroken. Almost six months of sacrifice, dream, passion... the team and staff did not even go home over Christmas and New Year's Eve all to stay safe... for what? I and the team are devastated."