‘It shows that India has arrived on the world football scene and we are able to host the finest tournaments.’
This was Praful Patel‘s statement regarding the success that was India’s first ever FIFA event, the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 India. The World Cup went on to become the most attended one in FIFA age group history, crossing China’s attendance of 1,230,976 in 1985 and Colombia’s U20 record attendance of 1,309,929 in 2011.
One would think that India, had indeed, arrived. The organisers had done their bit by working round the clock to deliver to the world, the best World Cup they could. The fans most certainly did their bits. They didn’t even disappoint the organisers as they gave up on sleep, trying to get their hands on tickets when a freak weather change in Guwahati caused a semi-final to be shifted to Kolkata with a notice of 48 hours.
So what went so wrong that the Kerala Cricket Association did not have any hesitation before announcing that the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which acted as one of the six hosts for the World Cup, would be dug up in order to host one single ODI match later on this year?
For the past four seasons, The JLN Stadium was also serving as the home ground of ISL team Kerala Blasters and has one of the highest recorded ISL attendance of 61,323 spectators.
In the past, this stadium, locally known as the Kaloor Stadium served as the venue of the Nehru Cup in 1997 where India vs. Iraq pulled a crowd of over 1,00,000. That was also the first tournament that the venue ever held.
But let’s not dwell on what took place 25 years ago. Let’s just stick to what took place less than 6 months ago. So it is worth mentioning that the JLN Stadium was built with the purpose of serving as a multipurpose stadium, especially cricket and football. However, with the World Cup taking place in October 2017, it was imperative for the State Government to give the stadium the kind of refurbishment that would allow it to get the green signal from FIFA.
The purpose of Trivandrum’s Green Field Stadium
Last year, the Kerala Government spent a whopping sum of 60 crores in order to get the JLN stadium in ship shape. In the meantime, on 7th November, Kerala was also handed the go-ahead to host a T20 match between India and New Zealand. In order for the cricket match to flag off successfully, the Kerala Cricket Association spent a large chunk of money to build the Green Field Stadium in Trivandrum.
The sole purpose of building this stadium was to not disturb the infrastructure of a FIFA approved turf in the state. Just like the JLN Stadium had an all encompassing makeover, be it the pitch or the practice fields, the Green Field Stadium too, was built with the sole notion of serving as a designated Cricket Stadium in the State. Yet, KCA finds it necessary to tear it all down.
‘Both the FIFA turf and the Trivandrum Cricket grounds are five months old. If the KCA holds a match in Trivandrum, it is a win win situation for everyone as the facilities are there and nothing is disturbed,’ said Shaiju Damodaran, Sports Commentator and ex FIFA VPO Kochi, to The Bridge.
‘Yet, the KCA and the GCDA want to dig up this FIFA standard turf, unnecessarily. So what happens to the 60 crores investment that the State made,’ he said.
The gravity of the situation, the endless hours of hard work put in by labourers, under the glaring Kerala sun, and the memories associated with the stadium for decades is not, thankfully, lost on everyone. With the news of the much-beloved stadium’s possible demise (its current face), fans took to Twitter.
Within hours of the news getting around, #SaveKochiTurf started to trend on social media. From earnest pleas to heartbreaking posters, the fans stepped their game up, like they have every single time the authorities choose to fail them.
Football fans across India, were joined in their virtual protest by footballers and intellectuals, who showed unfiltered support for their cause. One of the first people to lend their voice to the protest was CK Vineeth, the Kerala Blasters Midfielder. Without beating about the bush he wrote:
‘Over the course of this week, I have read various reports that the turf at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium will be dug up to help facilitate the ODI cricket match between India and West Indies. For many different reasons, I feel this is wrong. #SaveKochiTurf.’
Over the course of this week, I have read various reports that the turf at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium will be dug up to help facilitate the ODI cricket match between India and West Indies. For many different reasons, I feel this is wrong. #SaveKochiTurf pic.twitter.com/Y1RCm14Shd
— CK Vineeth (@ckvineeth) March 19, 2018
Ian Hume, too, lent solidarity to the fans by posting a touching, heartfelt message on Instagram where he wrote:
“I was here for ISL 1 when they had 6-8 weeks to transform our field from a cricket to a football ground. They made great strides in doing so, but it was still some way off from being a field for top level football. The amount of time and money that has been spent since then to get the pitch to the standard it is now for the U-17 World Cup and ISL, it would be a travesty to tear it up for a one-off cricket match.”
This ‘Travesty’, was also noticed by writer N S Madhavan who chose not to mince his words and called out the move to be nothing short of vandalism. His tweet read ‘Give the match to Trivandrum or get drop-in pitches, if viable. Stop vandalism’.
Drop in pitches have been in practice in countries like New Zealand and they potentially can solve the problem without having to tear down the JLN’s current form. Moreover, a cricket pitch would require a certain degree of slope in the midfield area, which cannot exist in a football field.
The option of not availing the Trivandrum Stadium falls short of anyone’s comprehension. This is so, especially, because the stadium was built, with all required facilities, simply to not destroy a 60 crore project that is only 5 months old.
Also read: The way forward for Indian Football
The U17 World Cup may have been the initial reason behind the refurbishment to take place but that was essentially supposed to be the stepping stone for Indian football, not an end result. The whole point was to use the junior World Cup to make a mark on FIFA so that it would become a first of many such and bigger competitions to be held. Only in January, U17 Project Director Joy Bhattacharjya said in a Press Conference that the success of the U17 World Cup would help India bag bigger tournaments.
So, let’s just for a second assume that India was picked to host the U20 World Cup next year, and Kochi, given its reliable football craze had been selected as a host venue, would the Kerala government once again spend 60 crores to get the stadium back from a football pitch, to a cricket pitch and then back to a football pitch? Or does it simply make more sense to use the Trivandrum Stadium which is also new and which does not require any tearing down of a stadium or sentiments?
The ridiculous and insensitive act on the KCA’s part was also hit on by Shashi Tharoor. Unlike his usual way with words, his opinion was quite easy to read on this one occasion, where his tweet read
‘Spoke to CoA Chief Vinod Rai to denounce Kerala Cricket Assn’s bizarre decision to transfer the India-WI ODI from a match-ready Trivandrum stadium to Kochi, whose ground was last used for the U17 Football World Cup. He has promised to review the matter. KCA motives highly suspect’
Thanks for the outpouring of support for my firm opposition to KCA's shifting the WI ODI to Kochi. Turf laid for top-class football would have to be dug up, while a cricket-ready SportsHub stadium in Trivandrum, the best in India, lies idle. Who gains from this suspect decision?
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 20, 2018
He went on today, to stand by his words and commented upon the meaninglessness of the situation after the Trivandrum SportsHub was created. He tweeted ‘Turf laid for top-class football would have to be dug up, while a cricket-ready SportsHub stadium in Trivandrum, the best in India, lies idle. Who gains from this suspect decision?’
Fans, players speak up; cricket icon maintains silence
The outcry of fans, footballers, and other notable figures are definitely over pouring, yet there is a kind of deafening silence from one particular icon, who is not only integrally connected to the future of and actions taking place in the JLN stadium, but he is also a figure who actually can take hold of the protest and put a stop to the decision if he, for once, decided to not play it safe.
Where on earth is Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar? The stadium in question is the JLN Stadium, home ground of the Kerala Blasters, a team that he owns. Sure, he had time to wish Kevin Pietersen a fond farewell as the Brit cricketer officially calls it a day. His post melts his fans; how very kind, how very thoughtful.
Does Sachin Tendulkar really have no opinion over the fate of his team’s future or does he not want to say because he could not possibly budge from his safety net, which he has never once shaken off to take a stand for what he believes in.
What is saddening is that, it is difficult to understand what is worse. His lack of courage to speak up or his apathy to the situation.
Heralded as the greatest of all times by most, and popular on Instagram for reminding people to wear their helmets, when will Sachin Tendulkar take his own helmet off and actually have the courage to take a hit on the face outside the 22 yards?
It is probably too early to think of what will happen to JLN Stadium but is hard to shirk away from the gnawing notion that there can only be one plausible reason behind this decision to uproot the hard work of so many labourers, and that is the fear of letting football take over.
Note: After intense pressure on the cricketing icon for not speaking out at an opportune moment, Sachin Tendulkar finally breaks his silence on the issue. While it is still not clear about what is exactly going to be the fate of the JLN Stadium, fans of Sachin must definitely be relieved to see their hero speak out. Before this, this entire thing was construed as one of cricket exercising its dominance over the rising force that is football in the country. We hope the countless voices against the digging up of the Kochi Turf bears fruit. Below is the tweet by Sachin Tendulkar more than a day after the issue gained ground.
Worried about the potential damage to the FIFA approved World class Football turf in Kochi. Urge the KCA to take the right decision where cricket (Thiruvananthapuram) and Football (Kochi) can happily coexist. pic.twitter.com/rs5eZmhFDP
— Sachin Tendulkar (@sachin_rt) March 20, 2018