Stephen Eze.(Getty Images)
Stephen Eze.(Getty Images)

How ISL orchestrated the passage to India for squads

Stephen Eze had no idea then how difficult getting to India could be. Eze reached Goa for ISL7 on November 4 nearly three weeks after JFC began the process of getting him to fly from Abuja, Nigeria. It started with getting the visa. “I couldn’t get it on the appointed day,” he said. Or for the next 10 days.
Kolkata | By Dhiman Sarkar
UPDATED ON DEC 10, 2020 09:36 AM IST

Stephen Eze was in Istanbul when his agent inquired whether he would be interested in playing for Jamshedpur FC in the Indian Super League (ISL). “I said, okay, no problem,” said the 26-year-old Nigerian.

He had no idea then how difficult getting to India could be. Eze reached Goa for ISL7 on November 4 nearly three weeks after JFC began the process of getting him to fly from Abuja, Nigeria. It started with getting the visa. “I couldn’t get it on the appointed day,” he said. Or for the next 10 days.

“Except for medical issues, it is difficult to get the visa,” said the player who was in the 30-player longlist for the 2018 World Cup. In those ten days, Eze would often have to drive nearly 300km from the city of Makurdi, where he lives, to Abuja. Meanwhile, the JFC’s operations team worked the phone with the Indian high commission in Abuja, often at odd hours to match time zones. Eze got his visa. He reached the airport with an Abuja- Mumbai ticket on October 29 but was told that he couldn’t fly. The airline told Eze that only Indians were being flown home at the time.

JFC got him a ticket via London the next day and again Eze had to return from the airport. This time because he didn’t have a transit visa.

“No one was sure what was required because the Covid regulations kept changing,” said a JFC official. JFC again contacted the earlier airline and asked them to make an exception for Eze. The airline agreed but this flight was from Lagos on November 2. By then, 72 hours would have lapsed after his Covid-19 test so Eze was flown to Lagos, put in a hotel and tested again. Eze played his first match in the ISL after four days of training following a fortnight’s quarantine.

With sangfroid in his deep voice, the big central defender recounted this over the phone from Goa. “In times like this, you just need to adapt to whatever comes your way,” he said.

Eze and ATK Mohun Bagan striker Roy Krishna, who needed 40 days to get to Goa from his home in Labasa, Fiji, are among 74 foreign players from 31 countries who have travelled for football in the time of a pandemic. For perspective, consider this: the T20 Indian Premier League (IPL) in UAE earlier this year had 62 foreign players from nine countries (if West Indies is considered as one country).

The players--each team is allowed to register seven--and foreign staff took multiple flights to get to ISL7 which began on November 20.

“Maybe I can work in an airline in my next life,” said Spaniard Manuel Marquez Roca, the Hyderabad FC (HFC) coach. Roca said he needed four flights to get from Barcelona to Goa. NorthEast United FC coach Gerard Nus, also from Spain, said he didn’t remember how many he took.

“It took a big effort from the ministries, the sponsors, owners and many, many people to get us here. Lots of documents too which we were required to show at the airport,” said Nus, who at 35 is the youngest coach in ISL history.

To expedite the visa process, the league organised letters from the union home and external affairs ministries which clubs forwarded to players and staff. The league focussed on getting footballers and staff from Spain first. There are 21 players from Spain and seven of the 11 teams have a Spanish head coach. ATK Mohun Bagan, who have three players and three in the support staff including head coach Antonio Lopez Habas from Spain, got them to Goa the earliest, on October 4. At least one team sought ATK Mohun Bagan’s help and were obliged.

JFC’s Australian forward Nick Fitzgerald’s flight from Sydney was cancelled because there weren’t enough passengers. “The next flight was some seven days later,” said the JFC official.

For Tajikistan captain and their most-capped player Fatkhulo Fatkhulloev, who joined Chennaiyin FC (CFC) this term, the passage to India happened on a repatriation flight. His coach Czaba Lazslo was in Romania when he signed for the CFC. One of the last coaches to get in, the Hungarian-Romanian Lazslo had to drive to Budapest for the visa.

It was harder for CFC skipper Rafael Crivellaro, a Brazilian who lives in Portugal. “Which is why I came 10-15 days late,” said the midfielder.

For the seven Brazilian players in the league, getting a visa to play football was, expectedly, not a problem. Though Bengaluru FC’s (BFC) Cleiton Silva did have to travel from Sao Paulo to Brasilia, a thousand km, because the consulate in his city was closed because of the pandemic. At Brasilia, things were smooth--the official processing his case was a former footballer.

The challenge for the Brazilians was getting to India. A major European airline had cancelled flights to India in October. Flying via Dubai or Doha could have meant another round of quarantine along with the apprehension of a player being asymptomatic but testing positive in transit. They waited.

Till ATK Mohun Bagan, who had pioneered the Spanish route, used the air bubble between France and India. Teams then came to know that while other countries insisted on tests and quarantine, to fly out of Paris all you needed was an online declaration.

Like Eze, BFC striker Deshorn Brown had to hit the road before he could fly. If Eze had to make multiple trips for his visa, Brown had to drive three times--once with emergency four-way flashers through flooded roads during a storm--from his home in Manchester, Jamaica to Kingston. The drive, for his visa and to get tested, is three hours each way, said Brown.

“I didn’t have a choice because getting tested is a difficult task in Jamaica,” he said.

Brown, who joined BFC last January, missed pre-season in Bellary and joined the squad in Goa. “The first time I came to India, it was smooth. To be honest, this time it was a nightmare. In the four-hour flight from Kingston to New York, I didn’t drink water because I was scared to take my mask off. The only time I took my mask off thereafter was to eat,” said the 29-year-old striker who finally reached Goa via Dubai and Mumbai.

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