Masks, sanitizers, temperature checks: Chronicle of a final foretold

A security personnel wears a facemask as he stands guard outside the Nehru Stadium, Margao ahead of the Indian Super League (ISL) final between ATK and Chennaiyin FC. AFP

With the coronavirus outbreak dominating headlines around the world, I knew the trip to Goa to cover the Indian Super League final wasn't going to be your regular match-reporting assignment. Knowing that I would be one of the few ESPN reporters covering one of the only live events around the world added to the strangeness.

From boarding the flight to Goa to touching back down in Bengaluru via near empty Goan streets, an empty stadium, and a whole lot of masks -- this was a surreal experience. Unlike any other reporting gig so far in my short career.

Here's how it panned out.

Day 1: March 12

The first indication that things are not all-normal comes at the Bengaluru airport. Gun-toting CISF personnel patrol the premises with surgical masks on. The officers at the entry gates, the airline staff, and quite a few passengers have masks on too.

The first real pangs of fear, though, strike when a co-passenger on my flight starts on a harsh coughing fit in sharp bursts. He's a couple of rows ahead, on the other side of the aisle, and coughing into his handkerchief. But human nature being what it is, I automatically reach for the small bottle of hand sanitiser that I had kept in my pocket.

Those rules had been set before I left my house: Use the sanitiser wisely. Wash hands, with soap, often. Keep hands in pockets for as long as possible. Keep tissues and kerchief on hand at all times.

Iqbal, whose taxi I got into on landing in Goa, repeats these words of wisdom. "My kids come running to me as soon as I get home," he says with a smile, "but I ask them to wait till I have washed my hands before I let them hug me. You can never be too cautious."

My first port of call is Chennaiyin manager Owen Coyle, and on I go to the team hotel, thirty odd kilometers away from mine on a rented two-wheeler.

Coyle is open and courteous, talking at length about his love for the game and the wonders he had done with the Chennaiyin team. He is also dismissive of any fears of physical contact - offering a warm handshake at the beginning, and end, of the interview. First bit done, I am too 'in the zone', to worry about COVID-19 either. Till I stop for a soft drink on the way back to my room, that is.

The man at the café talks animatedly. He does not appreciate the drop in tourists this summer. "What men," he exclaims, in typical Goan fashion, "virus will come, virus will go. If you die, you die but at least till then [enjoy life], no?"

I nod politely as I ask for a tissue to hold my coke bottle with, and a straw to drink from.

On the ride back I get the news that the final will be played behind closed doors. Now this is a whole new ball game. The mind starts racing over possible themes and angles for stories.

Back in the room, my computer crashes. (Because of course it does.) Midnight scrambling with a super helpful colleague in IT, and I am back. The piece is delayed, but not cancelled.

Day 2: March 13

Into day 2, I realise that the hardest thing to do is to keep my fingers off my face. My beard is now starting to take on a life of its own without my usual, constant attempts to pat it into place. The day starts with calls to fans who now have to cancel their Goa plans, that old college nightmare turning real.

The pre-final press conference is being held at the Taj Exotica. Before I enter the upscale hotel, a member of their staff takes my temperature with a contact-less, infrared thermometer. The heart skips a beat and only returns to normal when the man gives a thumbs-up and a "normal temperature, sir." The relief at hearing those words is a little more than I expected.

Once more Coyle shows a healthy disdain for protocol and embraces his opponents, ATK manager Antonio Habas and skipper Roy Krishna, warmly. He even shakes hands with journalists. Inside that little room, everything seems normal.

Outside, though, it isn't.

With the sporting world shutting down around me, I settle down to write. Cold beer turns lukewarm, and then replaced with plain hot water as announcements keep pouring in -- the Premier League is postponed, along with every major European league. In India, they go from continuing the I-league behind closed doors to shutting it down completely. BWF suspends all tournaments for a month. Finally, even the IPL is pushed back. You know what has hit the fan when that happens.

Day 3: March 14

Game day. There is almost no other sporting event on anywhere, and a light dread settles on me. 'Wait, why are we going ahead with this match? Would it not be best to postpone it?' As that cloud moves on, another replaces it. I was part of a bunch of journalists who were reporting on the only live football match happening on the planet. One of the only live events being shown on TV in India. No pressure.

The shadow of COVID-19 looms large over the Fatorda. A masked volunteer dispenses hand sanitiser to the few who do walk into the stadium. The emptiness of the place is eerie.

The circumstances around the final may have been strange, but the match itself is a cracking affair. A strange, but beautiful final to end what has been a rather interesting ISL season.

Day 4: March 15

More masks, more precautions as I take the flight from Goa to Bengaluru. On the way back, a sense of calm only a return home can bring. The final, the whole trip, was an experience so unique, it bordered on surreal. And I'm glad I got a chance to experience it. Now, back to the grind.