These past two months were supposed to be peak season for the Sevens. A popular form of football (seven-a-side, as the name suggests) played across Kerala on dirt pitches with thousands cramming into temporary stands, Sevens is now on crisis-management mode.
KM Lenin, President of the Sevens Football Association (SFA), says, "This pandemic has put us in a right fix. March and April are usually good months for us, but now we have had to stop many tournaments. Five had to be stopped mid-way, twenty never started."
The typical Sevens season starts in November and winds up by May-end (they do not play during Kerala's long, heavy monsoon season). There are around 600 tournaments of varying sizes conducted by various bodies and club associations, 60 to 70 of which can be classified as major tournaments with average earnings (to organisers) of around INR 5 lakh. The SFA officially conducts 40-50 tournaments a season.
Mohammad Ashraf Bava, manager of the Malappuram SuperStudio team, says they cooperated with authorities as soon as they were informed of the government's decision to stop public gatherings. "The collector came and asked us to stop play at our Malappuram Kottapadi ground, and we immediately did it. Whatever losses we may suffer, it is nothing compared to the lives of our players, right?"
The teams and the association had already invested heavily in the building of the galleries (the temporary wooden stands that can seat up to ten thousand) at grounds, but they are willing to write it off. "Financial losses are natural, but we see it all in a sportsman's spirit," says Bava.
These losses extend to gallery-makers who had those 20-odd tournaments eyed up, light and sound infrastructure providers, and of course the players.
Player contracts in Sevens football work on the play-and-get-paid approach. Bava says that earlier this meant dividing the winnings between each player equally, but these days it is a lot more professional, with wages matching skill sets. He says that the association has a fixed minimum rate, but better players demand, and get, higher wages. The average a local player makes would be between Rs.1,000 to 2,500 per match, whereas a foreigner of quality would make, on average, between Rs. 2000 to 4000 per match.
Now, there is no play. And no pay, either.
It is the predicament of the star foreign players that have both Bava and Lenin most worried. While local players will also have to forego good money, they are at least locked down in the safety of their homes, in their own land. That is not the case for the 115 foreigners, mostly West African, the Association says are stuck in Kerala.
"They generally send money back home to their families through the season, and save up during this last [profitable] period but that has not happened," says Lenin.
He says the association is working with the teams to ensure food and accommodation are being provided to the players, with the association providing a subsidy of 5,000 rupees per team, to the 33 teams that have registered under them, a sum of INR 1.65 lakh. That works out to just under INR 1,500 per foreign player.
KT Ahmedkutty, owner of the Jawahar Mavoor team, adds, "We are each individually pitching in as and where we can. Imagine if we had been stranded in a foreign land and if the few people we knew there turned their backs on us!"
Bava, meanwhile, says that they are regularly following up with the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO) to ensure the players are not mired in visa troubles. They come to India on six-month visas, just long enough to play the season, and are not allowed to seek any other form of employment whilst here. "The FRRO have promised that the moment the flights out of India start, they will help in sending [the players] back home," says Bava.
Everyone is working out what to do on the go. Sevens football has not seen a stoppage like this before.
"Never, since I started my club way back in 1969," says Ahmedkutty, with more than a hint of melancholy in his voice. "This game is rooted in society here. The anticipation builds up a couple of months before the season starts. Like how we all look forward to festivals. Once it starts, the game occupies all our evenings. Now..." You can almost picture the shrug.
"You know how liquor addicts get withdrawal symptoms when they can't have their daily drink? I have those when there is no football. It is driving me insane," he says.
Ahmedkutty is planning for the future, though. "Next time, we will all be a little more careful about spending on our foreign imports. Besides, we have to account for the fact that they may not be able to return soon. I am, for one, looking within India now -- especially at players from Mizoram and Manipur. I have already spoken to a few friends there and we are making deals happen," he says.
None of the three were willing to talk specifics about budgets, however. In addition, they refrained from detailing the scale of losses they have encountered this season and may face in the next, merely stating that expenses differed from team to team, and organisation to organisation. The one message they all conveyed, though, was that the financial health of the entire ecosystem depended on the sponsors they could attract.
Which is why the question of a restart is tricky.
Unlike in regular football, a la I-league and the ISL, there is no TV revenue to fall back on, and closed-door games are simply not an option. Sponsors come for local eyeballs, and without that, "what's the point?" as Lenin asks.
"You know how liquor addicts get withdrawal symptoms when they can't have their daily drink? I have those when there is no football. It is driving me insane." KT Ahmedkutty
Their sustenance is dependent on returning to a world where people can sit in galleries, shoulder-to-shoulder and watch the game. A pre-Covid-19 world, as it were.
Bava says it is complicated by the very nature of their sport. "Football is a contact sport. Look at cricket. They are worried about just handling the ball. People do not even need to touch each other, and they are worried. Imagine us, then."
He says that the teams and the association are in constant discussion, but the variables (NRIs coming in from the Gulf, Keralites coming back from other states, the uncertainty of what happens when lockdown is lifted) are too high right now to make an informed decision. "If cinema halls open by November, we'll open for business too," he laughs.
Meanwhile, he says, "all we can do is pray the world can rid itself of this deadly phenomenon."