The redemption song

Memorable triumph… Sourav Ganguly, the co-owner of Atletico de Kolkata, and the team’s striker Fikru Lemessa with the ISL Trophy during a felicitation function in Kolkata.-PIC:PTI

Atletico de Kolkata’s success assumed a lot more significance in the light of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — two of the oldest clubs in India and the mascots of Bengal football — losing their grip on the national stage, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

The moment Atletico de Kolkata etched its name on the glittering trophy as the first winner of the Indian Super League, it brought back memories of an incident that happened in 1911. That was the year when Mohun Bagan became the first Indian club to win a football tournament, defeating the British regimental team, East York.

The parallel, drawn officially in an advertisement announcing Atletico de Kolkata’s triumph in the ISL, had much to do with the Bengal pride as the progenitor of football in the country and the upholder of a “glorious legacy”. With the newly formed Kolkata franchise winning the trophy in the first season of one of the most ambitious club football tournaments in the country, many regarded the triumph as Bengal’s reincarnation as the sport’s hub in the country.

Atletico de Kolkata’s success assumed a lot more significance in the light of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — two of the oldest clubs in India and the mascots of Bengal football — losing their grip on the national stage. In the I-League, the symbol of club supremacy in the country for almost two decades, the teams from Kolkata have been perpetual bridesmaids. The last time that a club from Kolkata won the I-League title was a decade ago (in 2004).

Atletico de Kolkata’s victory was a redemption of sorts for Bengal; it helped the state emerge from the shadows of Goa, which had been dominating the national scene for the last few years. The road to transformation was laid by the city’s greatest sporting icon in recent times, Sourav Ganguly.

Giving up his dream of owning and managing an Indian Premier League franchise, Sourav got into football entrepreneurship quite early and put together a consortium of best business minds in the city to form Atletico de Kolkata. The former Indian cricket captain’s charisma and the city’s age-old association with football brought in the Spanish giant, Atletico Madrid, which was looking to expand its image across the globe.

Thanks to its passion for flair, Bengal took naturally to the ‘tiki-taka’, and the Spanish influence came to dominate the philosophy of Atletico de Kolkata, which also derived its name from the La Liga champion.

“I urge you to come and support Atletico de Kolkata and watch some quality football,” said Sourav during a Calcutta Football League match, trying to win supporters for his new venture.

“There will be legends like Zico (the FC Goa coach), and we will have our own stars like Luis Garcia. The standard will be very high and we will have the opportunity to see high quality football of speed and agility. Football in India will get a huge boost,” he said.

Sourav sought to deliver on the promise with ‘Fatafati Football’ (fabulous football) that became the slogan of Atletico de Kolkata.

With the newly formed Kolkata franchise winning the trophy in the first season of one of the most ambitious club football tournaments in the country, many regarded the triumph as Bengal's reincarnation as the sport's hub in the country.-

It was necessary to advertise the international quality to a city so attuned to the 94-year-old derby of Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal. “We will make arrangements so that kids can enjoy the whole day. We will also have bucket seats installed for the convenience of those who come to see the matches. Ticket prices will also be reasonable,” Sourav said.

He insisted on raising the quality and comfort level of the spectators, who were more used to jostling for space in the concrete galleries.

The ISL ushered in professionalism in Indian football, and with qualified people entrusted with the job of running the show there was a palpable difference in the demography of the spectators. In the past, women and children were hardly part of the raucous crowd that went to see football.

The ISL, however, changed this, making it colourful and vibrant, much like what it is during the Indian Premier League. Each of the eight matches held in Kolkata recorded an attendance of well over 40,000.

“We started well, drifted a bit in the middle, but will finish successfully,” said Sourav before the semifinals. He never lost confidence in his team even when it was in the doldrums.

When Kolkata’s very own player Mohammad Rafique beat an international cast to fire the winning goal, the celebrations reached a crescendo at a posh shopping mall in the city, where thousands had gathered to cheer Atletico de Kolkata. “The journey which began three months ago has come to a successful conclusion. Thank you Antonio (Lopez Habas) and your boys for the way you ended the campaign,” Sourav said, as he came to felicitate his winning team.

“ATK’s coach Habas has been excellent technically. Unlike other teams in the tournament, ATK stuck to a system and executed it to the best of their ability. They may not have been impressive at times with their defensive game but were effective in the end. That’s what counts the most,” Sourav said.