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The Salt Lake Stadium experience, and the brilliant chaos of Kolkata’s football spirit

The stadium embodies the city’s love for the beautiful game

Vedant Karia | Published 11.06.22, 06:16 PM
India after beating Cambodia 2-0 on their inaugural match of the AFC Asian Cup

India after beating Cambodia 2-0 on their inaugural match of the AFC Asian Cup

All India Football Federation

Want to know how tiny drops can create a massive ripple in the ocean? The easiest way to find this out is by visiting a sporting stadium. I went to one for the first time since the pandemic and came out believing that mankind desperately needs euphoric hooliganism. 

The most annoying thing about living in a football-obsessed city is that tickets to Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (or Salt Lake Stadium) are nearly impossible to come by. All tickets released online were sold out in less than 10 minutes. 

In the days preceding the India vs Cambodia tie, I went to the ticketing counter of the stadium multiple times, hoping that some offline tickets would be released. Each time, I and a few hundred others would leave dejected. But fortune smiled on me just a day before the game. 

I took my ceremonial stand outside the counter, watching people with online bookings gleefully collecting their tickets. I began engaging in banter with a group that just came out of the counter with triumphant expressions, hoping to get some guidance on nicking a ticket from BookMyShow’s unrelenting app. 

After we bonded over Sunil Chhetri’s magical footwork and the thought of beating Cambodia, one of them asked how many tickets I wanted. His friend casually took out two tickets from the bundle and handed them to me, murmuring that he had booked a few extras. I hadn’t even asked them for tickets. There is nothing quite like the unifying power of sport, which brings together complete strangers in acts of random kindness.

If you want to see how much Kolkata loves football, stand on the road outside the stadium before the match. The carnival of hawkers with national flags, excited fans of all ages and packed tempos calling out team chants gave the impression that this was war and every one of us needed to back the team. 

And then there was the stadium. I have been to Salt Lake Stadium many times, but the excitement of emerging from the stands to see the gleaming pitch stays the same. The bright lights, flying eagles and even the poop-stained seats gave me the comfort of never having left. They were not really comfortable for seating throughout the match, but you can’t have everything. 

Of course, all eyes were on the players during the match. But I stole glances at people in the stands. Each dot in the sea of blue had their own narrative going on over the 90 minutes. A dad passionately deconstructing India’s defence to his attentive son, a fan exclaiming “Dhur, hobe na” after a missed corner, and two guys tickling each other throughout the game. Weird, how it is easier to find yourself in a crowd. 

And yet, the stadium made us feel like we could be part of something so much greater than ourselves. I saw an East Bengal flag and a Real Madrid jersey, but the people sporting them were cheering for the boys in blue. I saw t-shirts come off as Chhetri scored his first and become gamchas waving in elation when he scored his second. I saw 30 people rise as one to help drape a massive tricolour over the stand. While they couldn’t untie one of the knots, they didn’t stop trying till the full-time whistle. I saw solitary screams become collective roars, and singular sit-ups become mexican waves. 

I saw so little but felt so much in 90 minutes. I felt thousands of hearts beating as one as flashlights from mobiles illuminated the night sky. I have never felt more delighted about my own insignificance — everyone inside the stadium perfectly captured Kolkata’s footballing spirit.

Last updated on 11.06.22, 06:16 PM

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