Kaloor Stadium gets yellow card!

TNIE examines the problems plaguing Kochi’s stadium — weak infrastructure, poor maintenance, and the heated row over what sport should take precedence here
 Jawaharlal Nehru International (JNI) Stadium in Kaloor, Kochi
Jawaharlal Nehru International (JNI) Stadium in Kaloor, KochiPhoto | Express

KOCHI: While cricket reigns supreme in India, football has long been the lifeblood of Kerala. Introduced by British officers stationed in Malappuram during the pre-independence era, football rapidly gained popularity throughout the state. Today, the Jawaharlal Nehru International (JNI) Stadium in Kaloor, Kochi, stands as the epicentre of football passion in the state.

However, the establishment, known best for hosting Kerala Blasters FC (KBFC) matches, has come under scrutiny of late after a viral video showed the concrete stands shaking during celebrations. Concerns about the safety and maintenance of the building, which was opened in 1996, were raised, with fans and critics accusing the government of neglecting infrastructure development.

The recent announcement of Public Works Minister P A Mohamed Riyas that the government is mulling setting up an international stadium in Kozhikode, overlooking the much-needed upgrade works of Kaloor stadium, only added fuel to the fire.

Here, TNIE examines the three-pronged problem ailing one of Kochi’s grand structures — weak infrastructure, poor maintenance, and the heated discussions over what sport should take precedence here.

Weak infra

The JNI Stadium is the home ground of KBFC, which competes in the Indian Super League (ISL) and possesses one of the highest fan bases in Asia. Sadly, the building is in dire need of proper maintenance and timely upgrades. Public anxiety peaked after a widely shared video showed concrete stands shaking while KBFC fans celebrated home goals. The video, shot from the third tier in the East Stand where the Blasters’ famed fan club ‘Manjappada’ gathered, was termed “dangerous”, “shocking”, “scary” and “pathetic”.

T Gokul Raj, a die-hard KBFC fan who regularly attends the matches with friends, says, “We always worry about incidents during the chants and dances of the huge crowd. The vibrations of the stands and the leakages on the roof add to our stress.”

Last year, during one of the matches here, an alarming incident occurred when a piece of concrete fell from a deteriorating stadium structure, causing minor injuries to a fan. Datuk Seri Windsor John, the general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation, had warned that the present state of the stadium “is a recipe for disaster”.

However, GCDA officials, responsible for overseeing the stadium’s functions and development, dismissed these concerns, citing remarks from Javier Ceppi, the tournament director of the Under-17 World Cup held in India, that some stadiums, like those of German Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt and Argentina’s Boca Juniors, are designed to shake during matches.

Officials have also opposed claims of administrative negligence and unresolved safety issues. “The stadium was built and maintained to FIFA Under-17 standards. We regularly monitor maintenance and infrastructure development. Although the actual seating capacity is 80,000, we reduce it to 35,000 on match days to ensure safety and security,” states an official.

Meanwhile, Manjappada, the official fan army of KBFC, has remained conspicuously silent on these issues.

Poor maintenance

Improper and infrequent maintenance work is another major problem plaguing Kaloor stadium. The building, which opened in 1996, was only renovated twice - in 2000 and 2017.

Officials say that tender procedures are completed for another round of renovation and repair works, but the work is yet to begin. Lack of funds is cited as the main roadblock.

However, critics argue that the urgent upgrades could be funded by the rent collected from shops operating in the stadium. “Now, almost all of the maintenance of the stadium is carried out by KBFC,” says Hidayath Razi, the former manager of the club.

“The franchise is also running around for obtaining safety permissions from various departments.” He contrasted this with his experience as the team manager of Odisha FC, where the state government handles ground maintenance, and provides international facilities, and even sponsors the club.

Cricket vs football

The ongoing disagreement between football and cricket fans also impacts the stadium’s prosperity.

JNI Stadium, which hosted numerous international cricket and football matches, including an India-Iraq football match in 1997 attended by approximately 1,00,000 spectators, has not hosted cricket matches since 2014 due to ISL.

Cricket lovers have regularly protested this, and some within the Ernakulam District Cricket Association (EDCA) too have lambasted this omission. “Kaloor stadium is capable of hosting both sports. Once, it was used for several cricket matches, including international ones. It stopped only because of utility factors and schedule clashes with ISL and other cricket matches,” says an official of EDCA.

He adds that turning Kochi into a single-sport destination would not benefit the city’s economic growth.

However, Sachin Tendulkar, the man dubbed the ‘God of Cricket’ in India, has calmed the clash between fans and praised the growing football culture around Kochi.

Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who is also an ardent cricket fan, was also in support of the #SaveKochiTurf movement. “The turf laid [at JNI Stadium] is apt for top-class football. To hold a cricket match, it would have to be dug up,” he wrote on social media, adding that a cricket-ready stadium in Thiruvananthapuram, was lying idle.

A dearth of quality grounds

Despite being capable of hosting 72-80 international matches annually, the JNI Stadium’s gates are open for just 12 to 13 ISL matches a year. The stadium remains locked for the rest of the year, burdened by the regular maintenance of the turf and premises.

There is a dearth of quality grounds in Kochi. This impairs the grooming of young talent. Vimal T R, the trainer of the football club United FC Cochin, says, “The availability of playgrounds is fundamental for football development. Out of 100 players, only 2-3 have access to appropriate facilities for quality development. Besides certain college grounds, there are few environments for elevens tournaments.”

Vimal adds that using Kaloor Stadium for state-level matches would improve the quality of the players. Interestingly, the latest notification from GCDA reveals that the stadium will soon be rented out to hold non-athletic events.

This, GCDA believe, will bring in much-needed money for repairs and upgrades. Assuaging concerns about the treatment of the international-level maintained turf, officials point out that Wembley Stadium in London, considered the cathedral of football, also hosts non-athletic events.

Final say

Whatever the case may be, sports infrastructure in the city should be ramped up. That’s not all. What’s the point in building and maintaining a crores-worth project if it is not utilised properly?

The concerned departments should also see to it that there are enough sports activities all year round. Not only does this augers well for the stadium, but also helps nurture future stars, and see Kochi truly deserving of its football fandom.

Is cricket leaving Kaloor for good?

Kerala Cricket Association’s (KCA) lease agreement validity over the JNI Stadium has long been an unsettled question among sports lovers. The KCA’s decision to skip conducting cricket matches and leave the multi-purpose stadium to KBFC has intensified these doubts. Although KCA maintains an operational office in the building, it is mulling constructing a new stadium solely for cricket elsewhere in the city. “The KCA is looking to build a new stadium near the Kochi airport (only site identification is done).

The proceedings are in the primary stages at the governmental level,” says Jayesh George, KCA president. “Now, we are concentrating on getting permission to acquire excess land from the government for our upcoming project, a cricket stadium at Kollam. We are also seeking an exception to the government order that organisations are only allowed to possess a maximum of 15 acres,” Jayesh adds.

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