With a little under a month to go for the inauguration of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, India’s iconic Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan (better known as the Salt Lake Stadium) was handed over to FIFA’s Local Organising Committee (LOC). From now onwards till the end of the tournament, the stadium will be under direct control of FIFA in terms of security, safety and comfort.
It was in the late 1970s that the football clubs in Kolkata felt the necessity of a larger ground. Club supporters were increasing and it was getting difficult to accommodate huge number of crowd in their small grounds. While the Eden Gardens was there to handle some of the bigger games, but the pressure of handling both cricket and football was proving to be a bit too much for the stadium. From this need, the Salt Lake Stadium was constructed covering an area of 76.40 acres (309,200 sq.mt) and with a total sitting capacity of 1,20,000. It was named after Swami Vivekananda who was probably the most influential Indian philosopher of the last 200 years.
In 1984, the stadium was inaugurated with the 3rd edition of Jawaharlal Nehru International Gold Cup. The crazy Kolkatans were overwhelmed to have an exclusive football stadium of international standard. (To be noted here that the 1st edition of the Cup was held at Eden Gardens for which the cricket pitch of the stadium was severely damaged and Eden had to pay by losing some international cricket matches.) It was a star-studded affair at the brand new stadium with national teams from Argentina, Poland and China making an appearance. Though Argentina failed to make the cut, it was Poland and China who enthralled the spectators in the final with Poland triumphing.
Subsequently, in the 1980s, the stadium hosted several important international tournaments and matches such as FIFA World Cup qualification matches in 1985, AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, 3rd South Asian Games in 1987 and USSR Festival Cup in 1988.
MATCHES TO REMEMBER
1987 SAF GAMES FINAL BETWEEN INDIA AND NEPAL
It was in 1987, India faced Nepal in the final of South Asian Federation (SAF) Games. In front of a strong 80,000 crowd, India dominated but was not being able to edge past Nepal. But finally when Mohammed Fareed scored an 89th-minute winner, the crowd ruptured in joy. It was for the first time that Salt Lake witnessed a gold medal win of India in an international football event.
1997 FEDERATION CUP SEMIFINAL BETWEEN MOHUN BAGAN AND EAST BENGAL
This was a Kolkata derby that is hard to forget. With the much hype created around Mohun Bagan coach Amal Dutta’s ‘Diamond System’ and calling of East Bengal star Baichung Bhutia ‘Chung-Chung’, this famous match saw all records smashed in terms of audience attendance. The record seems to be unbreakable as an incredible 1,31,781 spectators attended the match played between the two clubs. Till date, it remains a record attendance for any sports event in India.
2008 FAREWELL MATCH OF OLIVER KAHN BETWEEN MOHUN BAGAN AND BAYERN MUNICH
Among 1,20,000 football fans rising to their feet and waving banners showing slogans such as ‘Kaiser Kahn’ and ‘Kahn’t be any better’, German great Oliver Kahn bid farewell to the football world. Salt Lake stadium witnessed another magic. Mohun Bagan lost 3-0 to the German club, but the Kolkatans were mesmerized by the presence of Kahn. The legendary goalkeeper did some brilliant saves before leaving the field after 55 minutes to a prolonged standing ovation and making his way to the bench for the last time.
2011 INTERNATIONAL FRIENDLY MATCH BETWEEN ARGENTINA AND VENEZUELA
Football-crazy Kolkata has a special place for Argentina. It was the first-ever FIFA-sanctioned international friendly match in India but more importantly it was Lionel Messi’s presence that took the match to a different level. With full attendance, Kolkata welcomed the football great. It was also the occasion of coronation of Messi as captain of Argentina. In the 68th minute, Argentina grabbed the lead through Otamendi who converted a brilliant corner kick of Messi to a goal. Kolkata witnessed what they wanted to-the genius called Messi.
2012 FRIENDLY MATCH BETWEEN BRAZIL MASTERS ANS IFA STARS
Kolkata again witnessed some international players and this time it was of Brazil. The friendly match saw Brazil Masters winning it 3-1 against IFA Stars. The gift for the Kolkatans were the goals scored by Brazilian greats Beto and Bebeto.
U-17 World Cup
When India won the bid to host the FIFA U-17 Football World Cup, it was a matter of time to decide the venue for the final match of the tournament. With Delhi, Kochi, Guwahati, Goa and Mumbai to host the matches other than Kolkata, the City of Joy was an automatic choice for the finals looking at its football tradition. But the only hindrance was the condition of Salt Lake Stadium which was not at par with international standard. It was a challenge thrown by FIFA to the West Bengal government to revamp the stadium in just 2 years’ time or else would hand over the final to some other city.
The challenge was accepted and the revamp started in February 2015. And within a 2 and ½ years, Kolkata is ready; the refurbished Salt Lake Stadium is ready to host the most important event in India’s football history. “They (West Bengal government) took the challenge. This stadium now can be compared to other stadiums in the world that have hosted a Fifa World Cup final,” LOC tournament director Javier Ceppi said after thanking West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for getting the work done.
AN ENTIRE NEW LOOK OF SALT LAKE STADIUM
Moving from astro-turf to natural grass, reducing sitting capacity but with bucket seats, having two new full-sized practice grounds with floodlights, allocating rooms for referees and ball boys; new gates, wider roads, beautification — Salt Lake stadium has undergone more than a 100crore conversion for the U-17 World Cup. The state sports minister Aroop Biswas said, “It was an old structure. From time to time, we had to take expert advice of IIT Kharagur and sometimes BESU (Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur). The government has borne the cost of the renovation.”
LUSH GREEN BERMUDA GRASS FIELD
The replacement of astro-turf surface with a carpet of natural grass has given a strikingly green look to the field. Reveria Bermuda grass, imported from the USA was sown across the ground 2 years back. As the grasses grew, the surface became soft and smooth. It was evident in some matches played on the new turf where the players enjoyed playing. With the roots deeply penetrated now inside the ground, the surface has become more player-friendly.
Though the sitting capacity would be reduced, still the authority decided to replace the concrete benches in the galleries bucket seats. The government followed FIFA’s guideline about sports safety and the 1,20,000 seats has been reduced to an official 66687. “It’s not a single person more. That’s the capacity of the stadium for a safe evacuation for every part and every spectator of the stadium within eight minutes,” Javier Ceppi said. The only flip side is that the Salt Lake Stadium has lost its place among the largest stadiums in the world in terms of seating.
NEW LOOK OF VIP AND PRESS BOXES
The old press box has been pulled down from the middle tier and is now placed in the third tier with an entire new look to accommodate 200+ media contingent from abroad for every game. The VIP box still remains a part of the second tier, but is given a similar look as the press box. The two sections are now located at the centre of their respective sections and therefore look symmetrical from outside.
BRAND NEW PRACTICE GROUNDS IN THE STADIUM
Two full-sized practice grounds have been built at one end of the stadium. This was recommended by FIFA to keep the main stadium unused during the practice sessions. The same imported Reveria Bermuda grass used on the main turf cover the practice grounds. There will be view cutters around both grounds because the competing teams would prefer to keep their match tactics under wraps.
EXCLUSIVE ROOMS FOR REFEREES AND BALL BOYS
The lobby of the VIP entrance that leads to the players’ arena is being air-conditioned. To the left of the lobby, the rooms for referees and ball boys are set up. The press conference room has been shifted to a new room under a gallery. There is also a spacious broadcast room almost of the same dimension as the press conference room.
WORLD CLASS TRACK
Though it has no direct relation with football matches, still the old running track were completely lifted to give way to tracks with elastic coatings imported from German Porplastic company. The world-class track enhances the beauty of the stadium and will boosts the spirit of players.
SOME OTHER INCLUSIONS
The number of gates to the stadium are being increased from seven to nine. Some of the existing gates are being widened too. The boulevard around the stadium is repaired and beautified.
The Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation (BMC) has taken up a massive beautification drives in and around the stadium. The surroundings has been cleared of unwanted vegetation and the forest department has started planting trees ornamentally. An unused plot near the practice grounds has been identified for a helipad. Though there is no final decision on this, but FIFA wants its high-profile delegates to arrive directly for the matches by helicopter.
If the plan is implemented, the stadium will become one of the few sporting venues in the world to have a helipad. It is also planned that two giant television screens would be set up on either side of the main entrance.
So Salt Lake Stadium has been transformed into a state-of-art facility that Kolkata has never seen before. As Javier Ceppi said, “If you ask me, it looks like a museum, be the entrance or the inside. Or like the teams said it looks the lobby of a five-star hotel. In terms of looks it gets a perfect 10.”