We come to AFC bio bubble and there is an outbreak: Dennerby
Thomas Dennerby’s time in India has involved working on two key tournaments in the national women’s football setup. Both were hit by Covid-19 and how!
The 2020 U-17 FIFA World Cup was pushed back due to the pandemic, while the senior team was pulled out of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup due to a Covid outbreak in it. Dennerby will have a third crack in October this year when the U-17 World Cup is rescheduled. He hopes that this one, at least, sees the finish line.
“Otherwise, they better send me home quickly, because then I’m probably the problem,” the head coach said with a laugh over a Zoom call on Wednesday.
Less than 72 hours after his Indian team was forced to withdraw after one game from the tournament they had fixated their mind on for a large part of the past two years, Dennerby did smile during the interaction. That hasn’t been the case too often lately. “Lying alone in the bed,” he said, “I had tears.”
On Sunday before the start of their second group game against Chinese Taipei, India had been considered withdrawn from the continental event they were competing in as hosts after being unable to field a minimum required 13 players. Twelve players from the 23-member squad had tested positive for Covid-19 while two were injured. As of Wednesday, Dennerby said, the number of infections has swelled to 19 players and six support staff members.
Also Read | Covid knocks India out of AFC Women’s Asian Cup
Every player has spent the last few days isolating in the rooms of their Navi Mumbai hotel. The 62-year-old Swedish coach has been sending words of motivation over WhatsApp texts instead of in team huddles. In a long and successful coaching career with clubs and national teams, Dennerby, who himself is negative—“I don’t know how!”—has never dealt with anything like this.
“Setbacks normally are a part of life when you’re in sports. But not these kinds of setbacks,” he said. “But I have to try to support the girls. I send them small WhatsApp messages regularly. We have our medical staff walking around each player’s room to regularly check everyone and see if they are feeling fine, because most of the girls have some symptoms. It’s a painful moment.”
What made it even more painful is the timing of it all; just at D-Day after having the smoothest possible lead-up to the tournament. “We have been together for 150 days. Not a case. We have been working hard in camps for months. Not a case. We have travelled to different countries to play. Not a case. Now we come to the AFC bio bubble and it ends up like this. An outbreak,” Dennerby said.
Dennerby said he had an eerie feeling even before India's opening match against Iran on January 20 after he was made aware about members of the hotel staff—including the team coordinator, kitchen staff, housekeeping, etc—within the bubble returning positive results of their tests done on January 17. At that time, only one player had been affected. But Dennerby observed that many others too weren't feeling good, and feared the worst. It turned out to be exactly that: over the next three days before India were to take the field against Chinese Taipei, 11 new players were down with Covid.
Also Read | 'Devastating' setback for women's game
One dream shattered, one PCR test at a time.
“Every player who saw the result of their test report was heartbroken. Everyone. All of us,” Dennerby said. “Because they understood what it meant. The rules said you had to be isolated for at least seven days. So they knew that I’m not missing one game, I’m missing two games. And then probably the tournament could be over! So, of course, it was extremely painful for each one of them.”
Most of the players in the squad are young—16 of them aged 24 or below—and would have never experienced playing a tournament of this magnitude in their careers thus far, let alone one at home. Dennerby, however, wants to look at that fact as an upside rather than fearing for the younger minds feeling a bigger jolt of this stumble.
“I hope they will come out stronger and better from this,” Dennerby said. “The way I look at it, if I was 30 or so now, I know the next World Cup will be when I’m around 35 and the next AFC Asian Cup when I’m 34. I should be sadder then than if I’m 17 or 18, because you have a long life as footballers.
“But I first want them to get healthy, because we’re talking about human beings. As soon as they are ready, go out and go on again. If they maintain their training and level, they have a good future and India has a good future.”
As for his own future, the Swede can’t wait to get back home to be with his family. “It’s a nightmare. Even if I am smiling," he said.
After a short break, he will start preparing the junior team again for the U-17 World Cup in October this year. The SAFF U-18 Women’s Championship slated in March in Jamshedpur is the first step towards that. “I will come back from the break stronger than ever. We will start the wheel again. Do exactly the same as we did with this team. There will be 5-6 sessions per week so that by October, we will hopefully be able to field a very well prepared team.”
The coach is confident that all the backing that was shown towards women’s football by the All India Football Federation over the past couple of years as a result of this tournament such as exposure tours and long preparatory camps will continue. “The support from the federation has been good, and it will continue. I can promise you that,” Dennerby said.
Coach slams AFC
The coach, however, rued the lack of support from the AFC—the organisers of the tournament and the safety protocols around it—in dealing with the situation over the past week and “destroying” the Indian team's dreams by handling the bubble in an “unprofessional way”.
Among the many things that he lashed out on in a strongly-worded verbal statement on Wednesday, Dennerby questioned why the hotel staff wasn’t tested every three days like the squads, why was the result of the staff's PCR test from January 17—which returned seven positive cases—shared only on January 19 and why was there no deeper dialogue in trying to arrive at a solution apart from following the rulebook and plucking India out of the tournament.
“For me, the first huge outbreak was in the (hotel) staff. Of course, they had it already while they were serving us. And, look, I’m not blaming the ones that got infected. That can happen to any one of us. But the AFC, when they know that it came from the hotel that they put us in, they should have been more open-minded to help us in this situation,” he said.
As he read out the final bits from his detailed statement, Dennerby touched upon the kind of things this team had to sacrifice in order to turn up for this tournament ready and raring to go. “Really heartbroken,” he said. “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?”