FIFA U-17 World Cup - Never thought there would be so many people: England’s Angel Gomes | fifa-u17-world-cup-2017 | Hindustan Times
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FIFA U-17 World Cup - Never thought there would be so many people: England’s Angel Gomes

The Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata has undergone a dramatic transformation for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, from being a stadium in a state of disrepair to becoming a footballing cathedral that has overawed the current players in various U-17 sides.

fifa u17 world cup 2017 Updated: Oct 08, 2017 22:53 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
The Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata has undergone a massive transformation for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, with several international teams paying tribute to the makeover of the stadium.
The Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata has undergone a massive transformation for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, with several international teams paying tribute to the makeover of the stadium.(AP)

To Zico, the sheer size of the amphitheatre reminded him of the Maracana. That was in 2004.

Though it wasn’t as decrepit -- and never unused -- as reports from Rio de Janiero show the venue of the 2014 World Cup final to be now, the Salt Lake stadium then did look the worse for wear.

As it did when Diego Maradona and Pele came calling, Alessandro del Piero and Roberto Carlos ran out for games in the Indian Super League and Lionel Messi led out Argentina for the first time in an international. Or when Bhaichung Bhutia ran rings around Mohun Bagan, scoring a hattrick in a Kolkata derby that left half of the 1,31,000 dazed and the other delirious.

On Sunday, when England and Chile walked out for the first game in Group F of this under-17 World Cup, it had transformed from being a stadium in a state of disrepair where legends have set foot to a football cathedral. It has been a long journey which cost over Rs 120 crore of the state government’s money but the makeover, down to the sprinklers that kept a billiard-table like surface ready, has been fantastic.

By the time Chile and England arrived for the warm-ups the stadium was filling up. There were queues outside the gates by 2:30pm, half-an-hour before the gates opened. Both teams acknowledged the cheers when they came out to warm-up, perhaps it was the loudest they had ever heard.

By the time Jadon Sancho was unfurling his skills, there were over 50,000 people who cheered every move he made. “Never thought there would be so many people, the atmosphere was fantastic,” said Angel Gomes who scored England’s fourth goal.

“We are very excited to be playing Chile at a magnificent stadium that is absolutely worthy of hosting a World Cup,” said England coach Steve Cooper had said before the first match here.

Victor and vanquished were united in their praise of the stadium. “The facilities inside are outstanding and even from outside it looks great, This would be a great experience for youngsters, playing in front of 60,000 people,” said Chile coach Hernan Caputto.

From approach roads with a fresh coat of tarmac, litter baskets strung on lamp posts to mobile toilets, everything around the stadium on Sunday was like it was never before. Not even when Pitbull rapped it to a frenzy and acrobats dropped the Indian Premier League trophy from the night sky into the hands of a somewhat bemused Gautam Gambhir.

Whether it will be kept like this though would be another story. For another day.