There’s a saying that your understanding of Indian football will remain incomplete without watching a Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan at the chock-a-block Salt Lake Stadium.

This is when life comes to a standstill, loyalty gets divided, and the noise becomes deafening and defining. If the build-up to the game borders on the breathtaking, the spectacle slowly but surely whittles down to the stands-and-deliver mantra when the moment of reckoning arrives, and the teams seek inspiration from the 12th Man.
In a football-obsessed city, the Salt Lake Stadium has become the spiritual home of Indian football. Or, maybe more. Every grass on the turf here is resplendent with tales of grit, gumption and glory. This is the place where records are written and rewritten, dreams are realized against all odds and stars are born creating myths and conjuring magic. In a way, this magnificent, gigantic architectural marvel on EM Bypass embodies the the atre of sporting dream.

How is it like playing at this venue? “With the kind of atmosphere we receive from the stands, it is impossible for the opponents to win at this stadium,” feels Mohun Bagan SG’s Spanish coach Juan Ferrando. On the way to winning the ISL title in 2022-23, Ferrando guided the team to 10 wins out of 13 matches at home — including both legs of the derby against East Bengal and the semifinal victory over Hyderabad FC via a penalty shootout.
“The moment you enter the field to the roar from the stands, you are never short on motivation. You realize supporters are playing behind you as the team’s 12th man,” Bhaichung Bhutia, only Indian player to score a hat-trick in the Kolkata derby, had once said. And to British football manager Steve Cooper, who shepherded England to their famous Under-17 World Cup triumph, playing in front of a packed Salt Lake Stadium gave him a “ senior World Cuplike experience”.

The Salt Lake Stadium on EM Bypass, spread over around 76 acres, is called the Mecca of football in India​​

Until the early ’80s, derbies and big matches were mostly played at the Mohun Bagan ground and Eden Gardens, which also hosts international c ricket. But there had been a strong demand for a dedicated football stadium in the city. Such a project was conceptualized by the Congress government under Siddhartha Shankar Ray and when the Left Front came to power in 1977, it became high on the new administration’s priority list.
When 16 people were killed in a stampede during the ill-fated derby at the Eden Gardens on August 16 in 1980, the idea of shifting high-voltage football matches out of the Maidan gained momentum.
Originally a Rs 16-crore project, it was deemed to be a multipur- pose sports complex and its initial plans included a tartan track for athletics, an astroturf hockey stadium, a velodrome for cycling and an indoor swimming pool, apart from the main football stadium.
With 1,20,000 seats, Salt Lake Stadium, now named after Vivekananda, came up as the country’s biggest stadium and was inaugurated on January 25, 1984. The very next day, it hosted the Nehru Gold Cup ma tch between India and China that the latter won 3-0. Two days after its inauguration, England’s 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore came as the guest of honour and watched Poland lift the cup. From organizing ‘Hope 86’ to unleashing Lionel Messi as Argentina’s captain for the first time to hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup’s final — this once largest football stadium in Asia has been capturing the imagination of all and sundry over these four decades.
Since 1984, the stadium on EM Bypass has been the cauldron of fan frenzy and fantasy. But nothing could match the explosive expression it had witnessed on July 13, 1997 during the Federation Cup semifinal. More than 1,30,000 spectators —still the record of highest attendance at a sporting event in India — watched Bhaichung score a stunning hat-trick and help East Bengal tame Mohun Bagan 4-1. Bhaichung was no longer a boy wonder at the time, having already inspired JCT to the National Football League (NFL) title in the inaugural season (1996-97). But that match established his legacy in Indian football as he went on to captain the national team and became the first Indian footballer to sign a contract with a European club when he joined English club Bury FC in 1999.

On September 2, 2011, the venue became the focal point of world football again, three years after Diego Maradona decided to descend on its turf and legendary German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn bid adieu to the Beautiful Game with an exhibition game between Bayern Munich and Mohun Bagan.
Kolkata practically shut down work for the day with all roads leading to the Salt Lake Stadium as Messi came to mesmerize the city — live and in the flesh. In a rare incident for a FIFA friendly at the time, live broadcast went all around the world as Messi wore the captain’s armban d in senior La Albiceleste colours for the first time and guided Argentina to a friendly win over Venezuela.
When Messi as Argentina captain held the World Cup aloft in Doha last year, he might have been tempted to look back to a personal journey which began in the City of Joy a decade ago.
When India had its first tryst with a proper FIFA tournament — this time as the U-17 men’s World Cup organizer in 2017 — the stadium became the undoubted choice for hosting the final. With the aid of the state government, it underwent a stunning transformation with newly laid grass pitch, bucket seats replacing concrete benches, and executive-class boxes coming up for the corporate crowd, prompting FIFA president Gianni Infantino to say “India is a football boom waiting to happen”.
Post renovation, the capacity of crowd at the stadium has been reduced to 85,000, although around 66,000 tickets are usually sold due to security reasons. Backed by a packed stadium, Cooper’s England brought the house down with a stellar performance, beating Spain 5-2 in the final and leaving Kolkata as the Under-17 World Cup champions.



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