Mumbai: ‘Cricket kills’ is a theme that has been debated by representatives of lesser sports disciplines in India and sundry pundits for years. They have claimed that cricket’s overpowering presence, bountiful resources and the ability to gobble up sports sponsorships adversely affects the fortunes of other sports.
But in recent times a new predator is stalking the maidans and stadiums – football. The issue again hit the headlines last month when former India sprinter and Olympian Ashwini Nachappa slammed Indian Super League (ISL) franchise Bengaluru FC for treating athletes at the Karnataka state-owned Sree Kanteerava stadium like criminals since shifting their home base there in 2015.
“They [Bengaluru FC] have treated athletes [at Kanteerava stadium] like criminals,” Nachappa told scroll.in.
“They completely cordoned off athletics from the stadium. They have set up barricades around the pitch and have private security guards at all four ends of the track so that we don’t even touch the grass. They warned coaches if they tried to move the barricades, they would be arrested. This is a ridiculous way to treat fellow sportspersons,” she added.
Two years earlier, the Arjuna awardee and other famous former India athletes like Reeth Abraham, Pramila Aiyappa etc, and renowned coaches like Dronacharya award winner N Lingappa, V R Beedu, G V Gaonkar, Robert Bobby George (husband and coach of ace long jumper Anju Bobby George), among others, had similarly protested over the same issue.
Nachappa and other athletes have filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the High Court pleading for the stadium to be retained solely for athletics which enjoys a long history there. Bengaluru FC had tried to resolve the issue amicably but their efforts have not met with success.
The football club has received widespread support on social media with famous personalities including former tennis player Mahesh Bhupati and Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya tweeting in support of keeping the club in the city. But these worthies have not seemingly addressed the concerns of the athletes.
The issue of football lately marginalising other sports is not confined to Bengaluru alone. It has happened in Mumbai too where the stadium at the multi-purpose municipal owned Shahaji Raje Krida Sankul (Andheri Sports Complex) was renamed as Mumbai Football Arena a few years ago and appropriated exclusively for football to the exclusion of other disciplines like athletics, cricket etc.
The Mumbai Football Arena is now the home ground of Mumbai City FC, an ISL franchise. The arena has also hosted several international fixtures as well as the 2019 ISL final. The ‘Blue Tigers’ have also prowled around the turf in training on several occasions.
In the distant past the stadium hosted several events of a varied nature including concerts by Michael Jackson, Deep Purple and Bon Jovi which used to temporarily interrupt the training of the athletes and cricketers. It was the home ground of Andheri boy Siddhanth Thingalaya who shattered the 110 metre hurdles national record in 2010 among others. Several adjoining schools used to also hold their annual sports meets at the stadium.
Not any longer. For the last couple of years, nobody is allowed to set foot on the turf on the pain of being expelled, even on the small strip at the southern end used by footballers to warm up when a match is in progress. Worse still, runners cannot even run a full lap as the southern side is blocked at both ends. The turf on three sides surrounding the football pitch has also been thoughtlessly replaced by a tarred road. Even a batch of young badminton players are forced to do their fitness regimen on this surface.
It is a cruel logic that to promote football you have to kill other existing sports and deny use of a public facility to locals who have paid their fees and patronised the stadium for years, this reporter included. Ironically, the scion of a leading family of a political party that subscribes to a nativist ideology has pioneered this makeover that completely marginalizes the rights of locals in favour of ‘outsiders’!
“We have no place to train in Andheri (West) except this ground and now they have stopped us from using the turf. This is a grave injustice,” said Gopinath Sarfare, a retired Indian Air Force technician and former Services cricketer turned long distance runner, who regularly participates in half marathons both in and outside Mumbai.
What @bengalurufc has done for Indian football in the last six years is special. To think that they should carry on doing it from anywhere else but the Kanteerava just doesn’t feel right. The champions deserve to play at home. @BSYBJP
— Mahesh Bhupathi (@Maheshbhupathi) September 19, 2019
Retired bank executive Anil Ghosalkar, who has been jogging here for over 20 years, revealed that the authorities wanted to stop this activity. “We strongly protested and they agreed to provide a jogging track. Instead, they have just built a tarred road. About 500 people come here for running and walking daily, including those who run in half marathons and other races. What we want is that a track that can satisfy both casual joggers and professional runners,” he reiterated.
Another regular, Dr Vijay Pisat, who switched over from swimming to walking and jogging (he even took part in the Dream Run in the 2019 Mumbai Marathon) , bemoaned the fact that conditions for joggers and walkers have been deteriorating: “We told the authorities, you stop this walking and jogging in the stadium and do whatever you want. But they cannot do so as there are legal restraints, because the purpose of building this stadium was for walking and jogging.
“But they are now they are giving the stadium for football and other activities. The place is so filthy and the conditions have become so dangerous that anyone can get injured. We are not asking for the moon, but for basic facilities like jogging track, cleanliness etc. We will all get together and escalate this matter to various administrative levels till we get justice.”
The agitated members are keeping an eye on the PIL filed in the Karnataka High Court. A verdict in favour of the athletes might set the ball rolling in Mumbai as well.
Bengaluru FC recently said it would play their ISL home matches at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium after the Karnataka government sports department issued a letter of consent to the club.
No competent stadium official was available to give their side of the story. Their views will be incorporated as and when received.