Tuesday, May 08, 2007

GUEST COLUMN - Eye thy football stadium

One thing that has always flummoxed me is how Indians can't seem to get enough of cricket. Now hang on – I'm not a cricket-baiter. In fact, anything but.

What I do know is that going to a cricket match requires patience (what with all the oversold tickets and resultant chaos), physical and mental strength, not to mention incredible bladder control and quite literally – a thick hide (if team India doesn't beat its opponent, then rude, overbearing police personnel and stadium authorities will more than make up for it).

I love cricket but as a professional who gets his rozi-roti from football, let me be shamelessly opportunistic and give you some reasons to visit your local stadium the next time Indian football comes calling.

The first stadium you have got to be at is the Yuvabharati Krirangan, or the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. For the dictionary definition of 'goosebumps', stand inside the stadium half an hour before an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match. I have done it four times in two years, but still can't quite put it down in words. With over a lakh Bengalis passionate about their football, and even more passionate about the team they support, YBK can be intimidating.

But for those of us who live for the passion and excitement of sport, it's an adrenaline rush. The stadium itself isn't the prettiest, but if you have a list of 'Things to do before I die', my suggestion is you put in this entry - To catch an East Bengal v Mohun Bagan match live at Salt Lake Stadium.

At the other end of the spectrum is the relaxed, almost eerie Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, Goa. As a ground it is a good one (the only criticism being it is also used for cricket so you'll often see the remains of a cricket pitch) but the problem is - not enough people turn up there. Where that helps is that the Nehru Stadium is great for a football connoisseur – you can enjoy the peace and quiet of a relatively empty stand.

There are two more Nehru Stadiums (in Kochi and Chennai) and a Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore that are among the prettiest grounds in India. Chennai's Nehru Stadium is right up there among global football venues, while the one in Kochi gets its flavour through its football-mad supporters.

Back in 2005, we were there for the Santosh Trophy, and one evening I was seriously concerned about the health of those inside the ground. One of the stands was on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the dancing fans perched on it. The local DJ had the good sense of cutting the tournament song short to avoid a disaster.

Then there's Co-operage. Suffice to say it's the most "unground" ground for football in India. Located in the heart of Colaba, near Churchgate, Co-operage has massive potential as a football stadium owing to its small size and intimate atmosphere a la Highbury. Two days ago my brother wanted to drop in for a game, but kept driving around for the entire length of the first half while looking for a 'football ground'. If you take a right from Hutatma Chowk and drive away from Churchgate, you will discover why.

Then there's the historical Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi. Tiny in size (not incomparable with Co-operage), the atmosphere here is built up by old-timers who pop in from old Delhi. I think it's safe to say there are fans here that've probably seen every football game played in post-Independence Delhi. Never short on a comment or 90, there's nary a dull moment in the galleries especially when a player makes a horrible mess of a goal-scoring opportunity.

That's the only caveat – a football match is not the ideal place to go to if you're sensitive to profanities and rowdy behaviour. India in general and grounds like Salt Lake Stadium and Ambedkar Stadium in particular are no exceptions. However, games are much shorter than those in other sports, they're usually well-contested, and there's always a distinct buzz in the air. So make sure you have your fill of a few games in your local stadium the next time there's a game in your hometown. Believe me, you won't regret it.

(Debayan Sen lives in Delhi. He likes music, books, sports, movies and staring into space...not necessarily in that order. Oh, and he works for Zee Sports)

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