FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017, Stadium Watch: The Salt Lake Stadium, its stunning renovations and personal impressions
In the throes of amazement
I think I am going to quit writing for the time being. I would rather play on this pitch rather than merely write about it. Standing at the navel of this fantastic beast that the Salt Lake Stadium has become may very well make once-aspiring footballer turned sportswriter to do so.
Not for nothing, it made Javier Ceppi, the head of the local organizing committee quantify his amazement and satisfaction to declare this ground along with its facilities to be a " 10 /10", further adding that "this stadium is at par with any world-class venue that has hosted a FIFA World Cup Final."
I could see why this stadium is about to host the most important game in Indian footballing history.
Quite a bit of renovation has gone to bear this beautiful fruit. It reportedly took 105 state–department meetings and involvement of Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and Bengal Engineering & Science University (BESU) to effect these exclusively state-funded over INR 100 Cr refurbishments.
Green, green grass
The four-year-old AstroTurf was overhauled, the underlying ground which was dug up to 400 mm was shaped like a turtle-back and after laying the 100 mm aggregate drainage bed comprising perforated pipes, it was topped with 300 mm of sand mixed with organic fertilizer to prepare the foundation for the majestic pitch woven with Bermuda Riviera grass imported from the US.
Sports Turf & Golf Enterprises, the company entrusted with the transformation has ensured that the resulting turf confirms to the FIFA standards. The new sward registers a Clegg Hammer reading of between 80 and 120 gravities for compaction as opposed to 180-200 gravities for AstroTurf.
It simply means that the ground will be more merciful on the player’s knees, ankles, hips and spinal column and will be more compassionate on overall playing comfort. The grass-length which generally should be within the 20-30 mm range and sheared to be about 24-25 mm for SL stadium will have a 30 - 40% ball-bounce rate with a 45-60° ball rebound angle and a ball-roll value of 7 to 8 meters.
Ground traction is in the range of 40-50 Nm. Linear-friction values of both stud slide and stud deceleration, the parameters that allow for sufficient grip and movement on a non-slippy surface to help maintain body-control during the action and cause lesser damage to soft-tissue respectively are also top-class.
One can say that in accordance with the PQS - Playing Quality Surface standard laid down by the Institute of Groundsmanship, UK, this Salt Lake Stadium ground can be classified as ‘High Quality’, the highest certification possible.
There are six pop-up sprinklers which can pump in about 60,000 litres of water in an hour to irrigate and maintain the grass. These sprinklers can spring into action for a minute or so during the match-intervals if the match Commissioner decides that the pitch requires moistening.
The grass is of uniform colour now but eventually, cylindrical reel-mower will be applied to give it a checkered look.
The two neighbouring practice pitches have exactly the same attributes except that the sand base is only near to six inches. Unlike the main pitch in case of heavy rainfall, the practice pitches won't be able to drain out the water as effectively.
One can see an 8-9’ framework coming up along the sidelines to facilitate view-cutters to be put up the practising squad, to prevent rival espionage.
The right track
Along with the pitch the characteristic athletics track that skirts the turf was also replaced for the first time since 1984 when the stadium was built, with a fresh elastic coat procured from German-based Pro Plastic GmbH.
Soaking in the sight from Block 6 and 7 assigned for the press to ascertain the view, it seemed to look - the uncanny heat withstanding - like a lateral section of a watermelon except with reversed colours - an inviting green circled by enticing red.
Less capacity, more comfort
Yes, the seating capacity has been reduced from 1, 10,000 to a little less than 80,000. Capacity has been sacrificed for comfort - bucket seats have replaced concrete benches and effective attendance limit will be further shaved for safety. For the Under 17 World Cup, only 66,687 seats will be made available so that in the case of an emergency the whole stadium can be evacuated within eight minutes.
Security and surveillance
Safety is of paramount importance in FIFA matches. Apart from at least 250 CCTV cameras, some of which night-vision capabilities and two drones, the stadium will be wrapped up with a four-layer security system. The first one comprising metal detectors and cops starts of course at the entrance where tickets will be checked.
Then there will be cops specially trained in crowd management on the ramps and the plainclothes policeman inside the blocks. The fourth wall will comprise NSG. To combat further contingency situations heavy radio flying squad will be on standby.
Prior to each match the ground and the venue will be subjected to FIFA-mandatory helicopter surveillance alongside or only by Quadcopter drones.
Due attention has been given to the VIP lobby now air-conditioned and looking spic and span like a “5-star hotel property”, as per Seppi who echoed his team's observations. "If you ask me it looks like a museum, be the entrance or the inside. Or like the teams said it looks the lobby of a five-star hotel," said Ceppi.
While the VIP room on the middle-tier now can accommodate 20-22 dignitaries down from occupancy of 60, the press box on the upper-tier will see its capacity rise from 125 to 200. Boardroom and broadcast room looks more spacious than before. Rooms beside the practice pitch are ready as per FIFA requests and can be allotted to the referees and the ball-boys.
I was really looking forward to seeing the helipad base that was to come up on an unused patch near the practice pitches. It would have been a sight to see FIFA bosses arrive on the match-day on a helicopter.
But the plan has been completely mooted now. SLS could have become one of the few exclusive sporting venues to have its own helipad. Alas!
Entrance and outside
The number of entrance gates has been increased from seven to nine but all of them will not be functional. Forest department who is overseeing the outside beautification part have done a commendable job. The approach to the entrance looks clutter-free – those unauthorized shops and staff-quarters have evaporated.
The newly laid high-tension electricity line is helping clear bright fall on the soccer-themed installations dotting the surrounding greens.
Teams and tickets
The Salt Lake Stadium will get 10 matches – six group stage ones, two quarter-finals, the third-place play-off and of course the final - out of the total 52 that will be played across all six venues. Besides favourites England, Chile, Iraq and Mexico will play here at the Group stage.
England will train in Mumbai before stepping into the city on October 2-3. As will the other teams around that same period.
Calcutta will be the only venue to have tickets of all denominations viz. – 60, 150, 300 and 600 (all in INR). All venues have only those two middle options, the exception being Kochi which also has the lowest denomination. Delhi and Mumbai meanwhile will also have the upper extremities.
Tickets are apparently flying. Last time I checked, Rs. 60 tickets were almost completely sold out across all matches.
The online sale of the tickets here has been so robust that FIFA doesn't see a point in putting up a box office in Kolkata.
The stadium will only accept vehicles with passes. For others, there are six parking lots that can accommodate 3000 cars and are positioned such that the distance between the parking lot and the stadium will be less than a 1-kilometre walk. Besides, colour-coded stickers that can be availed from the police one can pre-book a spot using the Park24X7 app by entering their match ticket details.
Handover and thereafter
When FIFA took over this venue on October 29, 1 pm – the first venue to go under its aegis in this tourney, 98% of the work was complete. Nothing major is pending - just the single-pane glass that will be put in for un-obstructive viewing in the media and VIP box, a subway and some external stadium work, is left.
But in a way, the real job starts now.
As Ceppi succinctly remarked during the changeover, “It is now our responsibility to take it to the next level. We need the transition from a museum to a football stadium to host the World Cup. It's not major work but just two or three things. With certain touch-ups, it would be a fantastic facility operationally as well. It's not only about looks but substance as well.”
Still in daze
Returning from the stadium I couldn’t wait for the journey to get over. None the sooner, I realized, it is compelling me to write about it.
A cut here, a cross there
On and about with my grand affair
With my writing I’ll stay
It’s with the pen, now I play.