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Rabindra Sarabor STADIUM-ISL’s most Eccentric venue

Aerial view of Rabindra Sarobar Stadium

If Guwahati offered some sparklers on opening night of ISL3 on Saturday, Kolkata pulled out the fireworks on day two at a venue usually so nondescript that it was considered something of a local relic. On an evening that began, damp and dank and desultory, the ISL3’s Kolkata chapter sprang to life when home team Atletico de Kolkata snatched a 2-2 draw from defending champions Chennaiyin FC, with an 86th-minute equaliser penalty.

The match also gave to its tiny, and slightly derided venue, the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, a new layer of veneer. The ISL is made for and of sports television hyperbole and on Sunday it arrived early. The Rabindra Sarobar Stadium was introduced to the smattering of spectators before the game as “the brand, new home ground” of Atletico de Kolkata; except that it was built in 1961 had its last footballing life as home ground to local club Tollygunge Agragami and stated its last big match, twelve years ago, when Tollygunge played in what was then called the National League. Very much Indian, just not so Super, two months ago, its approach roads had, locals say, knee high-grass.

The stadium is named after the artificial lake in the area and sits unobtrusively in a leafy residential district. Its neighbours are neither the parking lot nor the netherworld end of a suburban train line, but a cinema hall called Menoka showingMS Dhoni – the Untold Story and the latest Bollywood hit called Pink, a bakery, a homeopathy clinic and a cut-price kind of “business college.” On match afternoon, it was crawling with flag-sellers, face-painters and bandana-salesmen. The arrival of the rowdies won’t make the local bhadralok happy but there is no denying that a tired, shabby venue, usually host to the annual sports days of local schools, has been turned into a graceful, even boutique, football ground. Its expansive, open stands and a modest club pavilion are surrounded by a thicket of trees, two large apartment blocks gazing over on one side and a train line that runs within audible distance. The bleachers have been cleaned and freshly painted, new bucket seats installed on the tony side covered in ATK’s red and blue, and featuring temporary floodlights which went up only ten days ago.

For India’s richest and most glitzy football competition to park itself on a ground with a maximum capacity of 11,500 in Kolkata of all cities, at first appearance was putting out a stall of low expectations. With less than 30 minutes to go on Sunday, the Rabindra Sadan ground was not even half full. This is Puja season and there’s a cricket Test on a short drive north and besides it had rained in the afternoon. The rains had turned the roads leading to the ground into mini-pond-lets and footpaths into mossy skating rinks. There were policemen milling about as they always do at a Kolkata event, in various shades of uniforms, including serious riot gear, offering little useful direction, and there were often frequent breakouts of loud arguments between organisers and ticket holders to be heard.

The real reason Rabindra Sarobar became “home” for ATK and its raucous fans, is because the giant Salt Lake stadium is being readied for the under-17 world cup next year. On Sunday evening, as the chants of “Aay-tee-kay” grew so loud that they would have disturbed the retirees of South Kolkata, the crowds kept coming in. By the end of the match, it was tabulated that 10,000 plus had turned up, giving Kolkatawallas a good game and their voice easily doubles the presence. As the ISL moves on, there is a good chance that a stadium with 11,500 seats could turn into the hottest ticket in town, if only crowds could be kept under control and ATK keep winning.

More episodes of this jatra will no doubt follow in the following years. From Kolkata’s first match of ISL3 has let a genie out of a bottle and given the city a perfectly serviceable, old but “brand new” football ground. Which football person in Kolkata wouldn’t want to fight for it?Added to it was the win in the semis which happened yesterday. Together the stadium will be renovated and in the next year of ISL we would able to find a perfect Football ground in the heart of the city of joy. 

             – Atlètico de kolkata fans