Kochi's Ambedkar stadium, to be restored to former glory

Ambedkar Stadium has witnessed legends play, from Sachin Tendulkar to I M Vijayan. However, the facility has lost its glory and is awaiting a long-promised upgrade.
Overgrown grass has taken over the premises of Ambedkar Stadium, once a beehive of sporting activities, especially football. (Photo |  A Sanesh)
Overgrown grass has taken over the premises of Ambedkar Stadium, once a beehive of sporting activities, especially football. (Photo | A Sanesh)

KOCHI: Kerala reclaiming the Santosh Trophy recently was a moment of glory for football fanatics in the state. It took many Malayalis on a nostalgia drive to the heydays of the sport. For Kochiites, the Ambedkar Stadium, near the KSRTC bus stand, is a memorable spot on that journey.

One senior colleague reminisces watching Santosh Trophy action as a kid, balancing on his uncle’s shoulders. He also gushes that Sachin Tendulkar played at the ground as a 16-year-old, much before his memorable, match-winning show at the Kaloor international stadium.Not just Sachin, legends such as Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Syed Kirmani and Roger Binny also played an exhibition match back in 1990.

The stadium, in fact, has witnessed several players, especially footballers, being groomed and emerging as stars. Today, however, it is in a pitiable state, ill-maintained with overgrown grass and waste dumped on its premises. Established in the late 1970s, the stadium was renovated in 2017 and declared a practice venue for the U-17 World Cup by laying an artificial turf. But, thereafter, it faced neglect.

I M Vijayan during a match between Bolgatty FC and former Kerala Police players at Ambedkar Stadium in March last year
I M Vijayan during a match between Bolgatty FC and former Kerala Police players at Ambedkar Stadium in March last year

Subsequently, Kerala Sports Minister V Abdurahiman visited the venue and held a high-level meeting with stakeholders. He promised the stadium would get a facelift with modern facilities. Kochiites are still waiting.

‘Project sidelined’
Former Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) chairman V Salim says: “We had several plans for Ambedkar Stadium. We wanted to upgrade the stadium and make it available for sports activities for the budding players. A public-private-partnership model was mooted, but some stakeholders opposed it.”

Expressing dismay over the stadium’s status, Better Response Kochi Group president and architect S Gopakumar says he had prepared a draft design for the stadium’s upgrade, as requested by the GCDA.
“It was made after several rounds of discussions with FIFA, GCDA and other authorities concerned,” he adds. “The idea was to make a football ground as per FIFA standards. An underground parking facility and recreation area were also included in the proposed plan. However, the project never took off, it was sidelined.”

Gopakumar says he wrote to the sports department on the proposal but did not receive a favourable response. “It is disheartening to see this stadium, with such potential, not being utilised properly.”
Football lovers, understandably, are disappointed. Former India skipper I M Vijayan says an “exclusive football stadium in the city is long overdue”.

“The plan to upgrade the stadium with modern facilities has remained a non-starter,” says the legendary star, who has fond memories of playing on the ground.“If the Ambedkar stadium is maintained properly, it can be used effectively by the current players and budding footballers. Hence, the authorities concerned should take necessary steps to kick off the upgrade project.”

‘National Games round the corner’
About 10 years ago, the GCDA had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Kerala Football Association (KFA) for leasing out Ambedkar Stadium. As per the agreement, KFA was to pay Rs 50,000 every year to GCDA for 20 years.

Currently, KFA officials are irked that the facility is not being maintained properly. “The stadium, which once produced many good players, is in a neglected state,” says KFA president Tom Jose.“Currently, we don’t have a good ground to train the players heading for competitions, including the National Games set to be held in Gujarat in September.”

S Gopakumar and K Chandran Pillai
S Gopakumar and K Chandran Pillai

‘Plan to demolish and reconstruct’
Current GCDA chairman K Chandran Pillai agrees that “the stadium is in a pathetic condition, and not up to the standard utilisation level”.He, however, reveals there are “plans to demolish the entire stadium and reconstruct it”. Pillai also notes the need to surmount “geographical and climatic barriers that make the land unsuitable for sports activities”.

“A change in the technological approach needs to be adopted,” he says. “The project will cost a huge sum, but we are working on a long-term plan of reconstructing the stadium.” Pillai says GCDA would proceed “in harmony” with the state government’s plans. He adds a “comprehensive sports policy” is awaiting the cabinet nod. “We have prepared a draft plan,” he says. “After getting approval, we will fast-track the process with the help of other stakeholders. The government will take the final call.”

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