KOCHI: Truth, sometimes, is stranger than fiction. And when truth hits, it often hits hard. Hard enough to throw possibilities out of the window. The so far ‘massive’ Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium is staring at such a truth.
For, when Brazil walk out to play Spain in the opening FIFA U-17 World Cup match here on Saturday, the stadium will sport a strange look. Almost half the stadium will be empty. And to think that boisterous stands filled to the brim creating a rip-roaring atmosphere have always been the 55,000-capacity venue’s USP!
“The passion of the fans would bring in top quality football matches,” went the chorus. It did. The most important FIFA tournament at the junior level is here. But the truth is, Kochi scraped through by the skin of its teeth, thanks indeed to the fan base and, perhaps, FIFA’s largesse.
“The stadium is of international standards, built as per FIFA guidelines,” the powers that be in the state machinery and the Kerala Football Association kept harping at enthusiasts desperate to see Kerala’s unalloyed love for the world’s most popular sport producing commensurate results on the field. How FIFA has debunked those notions! Security and evacuation concerns, rightly so, have forced them to restrict the number of spectators to 32,000, with only 29,000 tickets going on sale.
Focus shifts to Kochi
India’s date with the FIFA U-17 World Cup having got underway in New Delhi — albeit with a loss to the United States — on Friday, all eyes will turn to the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kochi on Saturday. In the opening Group D fixture, perennial favourites Brazil will take on European heavyweights Spain in the most high-profile group-stage game. Both sides reached Kochi well ahead of the tournament and, on the match-eve, their coaches exuded plenty of confidence, promising an entertaining contest for the fans.
Of the six venues hosting the U-17 World Cup, the JNI Stadium is the only one without a compound!
Coming out of the stadium, you step right onto a public road. Commercial establishments function right under the stands, with the shop owners evicted for the time being even taking the matter to court.
At this moment of unequivocal victory for the country in terms of finding space on the football map, sadly, a huge chunk of fans in the football-crazy state have lost out.
“It’s a big thing Kochi is hosting the U-17 World Cup, with teams like Brazil and Spain playing. But it is a pity a lot of fans are unable to see them live,” says I M Vijayan, one of India’s greatest ever players.
With the All India Football Federation considering a bid for the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, a more significant question arises. Will the JNI Stadium be picked by FIFA again?
“Under the current circumstances, it’s difficult to foresee that,” says KFA secretary P Anilkumar, himself a former player, having captained the Services team. So what are the options to ensure the stream of quality football matches allotted to Kerala does not dry up?
“It is high time the government thought seriously about building an exclusive football stadium,” Anilkumar says.
“Kerala has always gone in for multi-purpose stadia. With the availability of land at a premium, it is for the authorities to work out how one particular sport can be provided with an exclusive venue and how such a stadium can be maintained.”
Vijayan seconds the KFA secretary’s opinion.“Given Kerala’s huge passion for football, it is only logical we have an exclusive stadium. The fans deserve it. We cannot afford to lose out on future opportunities, particularly to ensure the new-found excitement for football is sustained,” he says.
Those wondering if the JNI Stadium cannot be turned into a football-specific venue, consider this too: Football action unfolds 20-30 metres away from the first row of seats at the stadium designed to accommodate cricket as well. The fans at the back end of the arching galleries would end up more than 50 metres from the action, making even recognition of players’ jersey numbers difficult.
“A proper football stadium is one where the fans are much closer to the field,” says Vijayan.
“That’s what makes the stadia in leading nations so appealing to watch football in.”For now, though, the focus is on making the biggest football event to come visiting Kochi a big success. And it’s time to cheer some of the world’s brightest young stars, who could well go on to become the leading lights of the ‘Beautiful Game’ – a la Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Andres Iniesta and Neymar.
Ghana bt Colombia 1-0
The United States bt India 3-0
New Zealand drew Turkey 1-1
Paraguay bt Mali 3-2
Brazil vs Spain (Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium, Kochi, 5 pm.)
Germany vs Costa Rica
(Fatorda Stadium, Margao, 5 pm.)
North Korea vs Niger
(Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium, Kochi, 8 pm.)
Iran vs Guinea
(Fatorda Stadium, Margao, 8 pm)