Sport, interrupted: Can 'social' football co-exist with social distancing?

The children that train at the Jogo Bonito Soccers ground in Bengaluru vary in age between four and 16. Jogo Bonito Soccers/Facebook

A common ritual at the end of a five-a-side or sevens football game at the Jogo Bonito Soccers (JBS) ground in Bengaluru would, pre-Coronavirus, entail players shaking hands and hugging as they walked off the turf. Half of them would take their bibs off as they cooled down pitch side, making way for the next batch of players. After chatting for a while, they would leave for home in clutches, usually making a stopover at the water dispenser, taking turns with a metal glass to re-hydrate after a vigorous game.

That's the scenario JBS would love to see in the days and weeks to come. It began accepting online bookings on May 19, for the first time in over two months - a period when, like other parts of the sports ecosystem, they've seen zero income.

Dilip Kumar, a senior member of the JBS management, says there have been enquiries but no bookings made; they've also sorted out their own SOPs.

"We have placed orders for thermal scanners, and every person coming to the ground will have their temperature recorded. While we will provide hand sanitizers, players should bring their own water bottles," says Kumar. "There will be no bibs and they can't sit together after the game. Just move along once you are done."

JBS is one of two facilities in Bengaluru where Kumar and his partners rent out grounds, and train children between the ages of 4 and 16. The academy employs 20 coaches, 16 of them full time, and the number of children who train are between 60 and 70 at each of the venues. In addition, the academy also has a tie-up with schools to provide football coaching. All of that, though, came to a standstill when the local government stopped all outdoor activities on March 17.

Kumar says the income from renting the ground out would range from INR 60,000-85,000 (approx. $800 to 1100) in a month -- an hour of playing fives costs about INR 1200 ($16) -- while the profit from coaching, tie-ups, removing all expenses made to coaches and other staff, would work out to Rs 1 lakh ($1300) a month. Staff salaries in a normal month come to approximately Rs 3 lakh ($4000).

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"The income for the last two months has been zero," says Kumar. "We have two other businesses, including one steady source of income, from which we are able to pay our coaches and other staff. We paid full salaries for the first month. In the second month, we cut it by 30 percent."

In all, Kumar estimates the losses incurred over the past two months to be Rs 3-4 lakh ($4000-5000).

With the pandemic threat not averted yet, Kumar expects bookings to start trickling in only over the weekend, and once the players are satisfied about the safety of playing. The grounds are being sanitised twice every day to get them ready for customers. Kumar isn't sure of the difference in operating costs that will be visible post-Covid, but expects a clearer picture only to emerge after a week. There's a good chance booking income might drop by half or more. Coaching is not likely to resume any time soon, and that would put added financial strain on paying the coaches, caretakers, coordinators, and managers.

To add to that, there are real questions that still plague those looking to make bookings, that will only get answered once matches resume. This was from one Whatsapp group:

"On one hand you want to play to stay fit, on the other how does one maintain social distancing?"

"If there's no tackling and no talking, do you just politely ask for the ball and get it from your opponent?"

"If we are all supposed to not touch the ball, then do we all just wear gloves to the game?"