The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Emerald carpet to soccer cesspool

The giant cauldron of Calcutta had waltzed into the Guinness Book only six years ago, with an attendance of 133,000 at the Federation Cup semi-finals — a world record for a club football tie. The Federation Cup is back at the Salt Lake stadium. But the soccer pitch resembles a quagmire where Bhaichung Bhutia, Indian football’s brightest star, has refused to risk his career.

The Rs 200-crore asset, now the focus of all flak, has never been completely overhauled since laid 18 years ago. Cosmetic mending was done in December ’99, immediately before the Millennium Cup. The concrete drainage network under the surface and the perimeter drainage channels are totally choked.

Besides, the pitch, which was laid like a tortoise shell, with an eight-inch slope from the centre circle to the four corner flags, has lost its curvature from overuse. “Earlier, even after a downpour, it took just half-an-hour for the water to recede. Now, with the underground channels blocked and the ground’s camber gone, water fails to drain out, leading to cesspools,” observes Saumitra Ray, erstwhile CEO of the stadium. Ray feels the ground must be re-laid without delay. “The turf needs to be dug up four feet, the underground drains repaired and the concrete meshing over them replaced. Then, the respective layers of perforated bricks, pebbles, good earth and sandy loam should be laid, before baby grass is planted,” says Ray.

To undertake this salvage operation, expected to cost around Rs 8-10 lakh, the stadium needs to be kept idle for at least six months. But is there enough will to do this' Sports secretary S.B. Mondal, though unsure of the annual outlay for the stadium’s upkeep, agrees something should be done at once to save the gasping patch of green, not to mention replacing the missing fibreglass seats and fixing the leaking pipes, failing floodlights and the run-down dorms of Asia's largest youth hostel, housed within.

Of the 60,000 bucket-seats installed, hardly 6,000 remain, the rest either vandalised or stolen. Re-laying around a lakh fibreglass chairs alone would entail a cost of around Rs 5 crore. Besides, the 18-year-old floodlights need to be revitalised, electronic scoreboards repaired, the toilets remodelled, drinking-water pipelines and fountains cleared of iron sediment and hawkers' garbage, and in-house accommodation arranged for emergency staff.

All this requires big money. But Mondal is not sure the finance department will loosen its purse strings enough. “We have engaged our engineers to prepare a feasibility report for repairing the pitch. Once the report is ready, the finance department has to give the nod, and then we will sit with the IFA and other units to identify an idle window," Mondal told Metro on Friday.

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