On Sunday, when thousands of fans return to a football match in India for the first time in two years, some of the country's up-and-coming players will be keen to put on a performance to remember. After all, it is the big final of the Indian Super League, between Kerala Blasters FC and Hyderabad FC in Goa, with the legendary IM Vijayan and India men's team head coach Igor Stimac in attendance.
Understandably, the players are all looking forward to the game – veterans and youngsters alike. For two seasons, they’ve not had it easy, living in the longest bio-secure environment in Indian sport, almost half a year each time.
"Last season was very tough as the bubble life was new to us. But this season, we had somewhat of an idea; we knew how to keep ourselves busy. So, it was not as tough in comparison," Kerala Blasters' young goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill said, after the team's final training session in Goa.
"Last year, we were counting the days for the bubble life to end. This year, however, the team has also done well and it has been a little more comfortable, overall," he added.
Meanwhile, veteran Harmanjot Khabra felt a win against Hyderabad would make the hardships sweeter.
"The bubble was challenging. It was not easy, and the credit goes to the coach and the players we have. The journey has made sure the team is stronger. It was hard, and hopefully, if we win on Sunday. it will be very sweet," Khabra said.
While Khabra has had a storied career, young Gill isn't far behind, even if this is possibly his biggest game at the highest level. The goalkeeper, who was deputy to Dheeraj Moirangthem at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017, has had his ups and downs so far and is glad that coach Luis Norton de Matos had shown faith in him while preparing for the showpiece event.
"I have played as a CB also in tournaments. There were tournaments when there were two kits made for me. There have been quite a few ups and downs, but despite not getting a chance in the FIFA U-17 World Cup, I played in the I-League and I took my chances. Then came the ISL, and it took me a little time. But now, with God's grace, I have managed to grab this opportunity and I am feeling good about it," Gill said, narrating his journey.
Yet again, this season, Gill wasn't the first choice under the sticks for the Kerala side; an unfortunate injury to Albino Gomes opened the door for him, and he currently leads the way for the most clean-sheets in the tournament. Kerala Blasters have registered the most shut-outs – 8 in 22 games, with Gill in goal for 7 of them.
"I didn't expect to be thrust into the team, but there was no pressure when I came in because I knew I had prepared well and was careful of it too. Our goalkeeping coach (Slaven Progovecki) helped me a lot. He told me to just keep doing what I do during the game. The manager (Ivan Vukomanovic) never made me feel like I am new. He trusts each and everyone in the squad, so there wasn't any extra pressure and everyone had the faith in me, which helped me a lot," the young keeper said on the eve of the final.
Gill has been so good that even India head coach Igor Stimac has made his appreciation known, at a time when almost all Indian keepers have had a tough time.
But, all of that is in the past, much like how Vukomanovic ensured that his side's fitness levels would be among the very best in the country. For now, Gill's next big source of concern is likely to be Hyderabad FC's Bart Ogbeche, who has outscored the rest in the tournament by a mile and a half with 18 goals from 19 outings.
"Ogbeche is a top striker in the ISL, but we are viewing it as a team and not as an individual player and hopefully we will get a good result," Gill said.
Kerala have been the bridesmaids twice in the seven seasons that have gone by so far. Is third time the charm?