Kolkata: Two walls outside the dressing rooms at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Stadium in Kolkata are enough to give one a sense of the rich history of a venue that in 1997 witnessed a record attendance of over 130,000 spectators in the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Oliver Kahn, Romario, Zico, Roberto Carlos, Thomas Muller, Carlos Valderrama - these are some of the greats from around the world of football to have laid foot on the hallowed turf of the stadium.
The arena had hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup Final two years back but the city has not seen the Indian men's national team play for approximately eight years. All that is about to change when India take on Bangladesh in the FIFA World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 Joint-Qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium on Tuesday.
Sahal Abdul Samad, the new kid on the block, said it is kind of a dream come true to be arriving in Kolkata as part of the Indian national team.
"Kolkata and Kerala enjoy a long-standing relationship. There have been a lot many great players from Kerala who have plied their trade in Kolkata, and they always speak so highly of the City of Joy. I have heard the roar at the VYBK is divine. We are looking forward to stepping on to the pitch," he said.
Head coach Igor Stimac pointed out the areas that his team needs to work on but thanked Kolkata for the response while the pacy winger Udanta Singh said Kolkata had responded to their call and it was now up to the team to put up the show.
"We'll need to work on set-pieces, combinations and choose the best eleven for the game. The entire squad is extremely excited. Thank you Kolkata for your response," Stimac said.
"It has been fantastic. The welcome in Kolkata has been just outstanding. Now it's for us to repay everyone. Let's win it together in Kolkata, with Kolkata," Udanta said moments after arriving here.
Local lad Pritam Kotal, however, put aside any ideas of the "Bengal sentiment".
"It's the India national team that sings the national anthem together. It hardly matters who hails from Bengal or who was born in Punjab. We are going to fight it together on the field against Bangladesh to get our first win of the World Cup qualifiers. Hence, it is not just about Bengalis," he said.
"They (Kolkata fans) travel from far to support the teams they love. But this time, it's the national team that will play here. So let's all get together and support the team. I hope that everyone comes to the ground on the day and we have packed stands," he added.
THE CITY OF JOY
(Photo Credit: AIFF)
Footballers, who hail from Kolkata, are delighted that the national team will finally play in the arena they called the "Mecca of Indian Football".
"Everyone knows that Kolkata is the Mecca of Indian football. I've played here at Mohun Bagan for the earlier part of my career. The fans here are just crazy," midfielder Pronay Halder stated.
Arnab Mondal, who had operated in the heart of the Indian defence between 2013 to 2017, feels that India playing at this venue after a long time makes this a very special occasion.
"I've grown up playing here, in Kolkata. Football is the lifeline here. Their support provides a lot of boost to the players during a game. The players always know their fans are behind them," said Mondal.
"The city will be hosting an international match after a really long time. This in itself, makes this game huge in the eyes of the local fans. Very few states in India can match-up to the atmosphere we get here in Kolkata," he further said.
A BOOST FROM THE QATAR GAME
India head into the game against Bangladesh on the back of a historic 0-0 draw against AFC Asian Cup champions Qatar in their own den, something that no Asian team had been able to do against them this year.
Pronay believes that it was a team effort that helped India earn the historic result. "The team fought a lot in the away game against Qatar, and that one point that we got out of the difficult game was well-earned. It was entirely a team effort that got us that historic draw. It gave the boys that belief that we can also stand up and fight top teams," he said.
However, the midfielder feels that all the hard work put in by the Indian team in the Qatar match will be wasted if they do not pick up the three points at home against Bangladesh.
"That gave the boys a lot of confidence and motivation, but it would mean nothing if we do not follow that up with a win against Bangladesh. That makes this match all the more important, and that is why we need all the support we can get from the fans," he said.
That, however, is easier said than done, as Arnab Mondal believes that we could have a derby-like atmosphere on the cards on October 15.
"Since there is such geographic proximity, I believe that we will have some fans from Bangladesh in the stands, and the atmosphere could be like the Derby," he said.
Recalling India's last home game against Bangladesh back in 2014 in Goa, a match that ended 2-2, Arnab feels that the current national team players are much younger and fitter, something that makes them well-equipped to deal with various situations.
"We drew that match 2-2. I think the current crop is much fitter than what the unit was, back then. They also have some young players, who are quite talented," said Arnab.
India headed to Kolkata on back of a 10-day preparatory tour in Guwahati which Ashique Kuruniyan described as "fruitful".
"It was a productive camp for us. We had some intense sessions and a friendly match which helped us assess our strengths. Now, it's on us to tighten the screws and execute the plans on 15th," Kuruniyan maintained.
(With inputs from IANS)