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Coping with Corona: Ranjit Bajaj does away with handshakes, organises FIFA competitions

In these times of social distancing, sport is a casualty. Tournaments stand cancelled, seasons suspended and sport worldwide is almost at a virtual standstill. ESPN will be bringing you serialized accounts of Indian athletes, cooped up in homes or training camps, on what their lives are like now, with calendars scrambled, competitions on hold and plenty of time to kill.

Ranjit Bajaj

Director and co-owner, Punjab FC

Minerva academy, Chandigarh

How has the lockdown been for you and your team?

It's really boring, because you can't even train. All the gyms, the pools are closed, and you can't even go to a public facility. It's really tough, but the people understand. The number of tests that are happening are apparently really low, and it may not be a full-blown pandemic yet, but we might only come to know the extent of this after two or three weeks.

Were you preparing for an I-League game when the lockdown actually came into effect?

We were in Ludhiana for a home game with Aizawl FC [on March 15] and the press conference happened one day before the match. We got a call before the match that this will be the last game before the league is postponed. We were prepared for it being the last match, but during the press conference we were told that today will be the last day and there will be no further matches. Even though, after our press conference, the NEROCA match and the ISL final also happened.

What has been the biggest challenge of this self-isolation?

The players are still with me, and the immediate challenge is what do I do with them? If I send my foreign players back, I can't get them back, because there's a ban on these guys travelling back from some countries. But if I don't send them back, what do I do with them here? Because all the Indian players want to go home. The Indian players don't want to stay -- they want to be with their families. However, after one month -- if things go back to normal and I bring those Indian players back with the foreign players -- the Indian players might have picked up the virus.

So now, I really don't see how it's possible to restart [the I-League]. How long are you going to pull the league till? Yes, the season lasts till May 31, but that means all the teams will have to spend nine or ten months of salary. We had them for extra three months of pre-season as well. Then now, after it was supposed to end in March-end and expanded to April, which becomes May-end. It's almost like two seasons together! 

So how are you devising ways to keep the team engaged?

We've got a proper lounge with Wi-Fi access, three-four computers, recliner chairs and all the video games. There's a lot of FIFA competitions, TT and foosball going on. We've got a FIFA champion in Himanshu [striker Himanshu Jangra] because he is the youngest and he does it all the time. [Forward] Girik Khosla is really good, as is [defender] Munmum Lugun. Among the foreigners, [forward] Sergio Barboza is probably the best of the lot. But how long can you keep doing this? [It would be good] if there were some live football matches going on in the world -- there's no live sport happening anywhere.

What about you yourself?

It's tough. Even after knowing there's nothing to fight for, there's second place, but second place earlier was amounting to an AFC spot. Now that also has been taken away. I had announced at the beginning of the season that if we win, the [prize money of] INR 1 crore (approx. $ 135,000) which comes will be divided among the players, and if we come second, then INR 60 lakh will go, and if we come third, INR 40 lakh. They will each make two lakh (approx. $ 2,700) or so more if they come second rather than third -- but even that's not motivation enough at the moment, because they know that it's done and dusted. The champions are decided, and on top of that, is it now worth risking your life?

How has this paranoia around the coronavirus changed habits within the team?

We have been using these N95 masks for the last month and a half, probably one of the first teams to do it. We have also put up posters all over their lounge on how to make sure you wash your hands and what are the right ways. Just making sure the players are not afraid but at the same time are cautious.

Because if one of them gets it, everybody gets it. That's what a team is -- the way they are living, interacting with each other. Starting from the time you have a team photograph at the beginning of a match, you are shoulder-to-shoulder. And even if the opposing team has one player who gets it, at the end of the match you go hug a guy who is totally sweaty, snotty. We are in suits and we still do the same. If a footballer gets it, the entire team definitely gets it. We have to be really careful that we are not one of the guys who picks it up.

So you guys are still shaking hands?

No, we've done away with handshakes (laughs). It's mandatory to either do the elbow bump or the namaste. The foreigners are all doing the namaste, and the Indian kids are actually doing elbow bumps.

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