From the gritty football battles to heated cricket showdowns, the increasing pollution levels have emerged as an unexpected adversary for athletes and fans alike. Punjab FC, who have already had a challenging start in their debut Indian Super League (ISL) season, will take on this additional challenge as they prepare to make their return to their adopted home ground, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, for a crucial match against Hyderabad FC.
Punjab FC have two draws from six matches in the season so far, and are yet to register a single win, leaving fans and players yearning for a change of fortune. The looming homecoming to Delhi was meant to be a chance to rejuvenate their campaign, but the deteriorating air quality in the national capital has become a cause of concern.
The arrival of winter has brought a sharp spike in air pollution levels in Delhi, making it dangerous for even the healthiest individuals to venture outdoors for extended periods. Ahead of the cricket World Cup match between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at the Arun Jaitley Stadium, both teams had to cancel their practice sessions due to air pollution last week. While concerns were raised about the match proceeding as scheduled, it eventually took place on November 6.
Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI) did record a marginal improvement on Monday, dropping from 421 to 394 in the evening. However, the concentration of PM2.5, fine particulate matter that can pose severe health risks by penetrating deep into the respiratory system, exceeded the government-prescribed safe limit by seven to eight times. As a result, participating in sporting activities amid such conditions becomes a daunting task.
Punjab FC’s head coach, Staikos Vergetis, acknowledged the challenging situation but emphasized that scheduling was beyond the control of the club. During a pre-match press conference ahead of their encounter with Hyderabad, Vergetis addressed the rising pollution levels in the city and their potential impact on the players’ performances.
“This is one issue that doesn’t depend on us. The league is responsible and most appropriate to decide. As far as measurements over whether it is dangerous for players or not, I believe it is not the first time. They know how to evaluate the situation and take the correct decision,” Vergetis told Hindustan Times ahead of the game during the pre-match press conference.
On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked Delhi as the world’s most polluted city currently. The premier Indian football league has made a return to the city after a 4-year hiatus; Delhi Dynamos was the last club to have played at the iconic stadium before the club shifted base to Odisha, rebranding as Odisha FC.
Knew it was going to be a challenge
A transition from I-League to the ISL was never going to be easy, and Vergetis acknowledges the difference in quality. Despite the challenging start, however, Punjab FC have shown their potential, posing strong competition in all matches bar the one against Chennaiyin. Last week, the club went down to Mumbai City FC 2-1 at the Mumbai Football Arena after leading the match for 82 minutes.
“In the last game, the opponent was very strong and they put us in a difficult situation. The red card was bad because it was an important player for us but in football or real life you cannot cry. You have to get up and go on. This is what we’re going do now,” Vergetis told Hindustan Times.
“Of course, this is a challenging year for us, it’s our first season in the ISL. As professional players, coaches and staff we are all facing this situation in India for the first time and it’s a challenging situation but we are enjoying participating in the league. I have said before, there’s a huge difference between ISL and I-League – from one area to another the ball travels very fast in ISL. We have to adapt and this is something new which we have to develop.”