The ISL can be called the brainchild of the corporate world, the rich and powerful all seem to have gotten their hands on the “next big thing” in Indian sport, football. After the glamorization of cricket via the Indian Premier League and Kabbadi thanks to the Pro Kabaddi league it was time to give the most followed sport in the world, football, the wash that it needed.
Nominating the cities for the teams would be a hard task but one city was bound to be selected for the tournament, Kolkata. The city hosts one of the fiercest rivalries in the world, the East Bengal – Mohun Bagan derby, packing the Salt Lake stadium with close to 120,000 before the stadium was renovated to bring down the capacity to 68,000.
Bringing in Sourav Ganguly as a part owner along with Harsh Neotia, Utsav Parekh and Sanjiv Goenka would have provided some potency to the fact that this was going to be more than just a money making and money splashing extravaganza. “Dada” as Sourav is lovingly called in India, for his time as captain of the Indian cricket team loves his football and most Kolkata’s would have guaranteed a proper sports team would be run under Dada’s management.
The Spanish influence
That however was not the end of it, in May 2014 things took a brilliant turn or pirouette (360 spin in footballing terms) for the Kolkata team. The 4 co-owners of the team ended up signing a deal with current La Liga champions Atletico Madrid. As the owner of Atletico Madrid, Miguel Angel Gill Marin stated in a press conference with the 4 co-owners of the Kolkata team
“Atletico is very excited at the prospect of creating connection with one of the largest demographics for football globally. Our joint ownership of the club is testimony to our commitment to the Kolkata franchise of Indian Super League. Through this franchise, the club will work to improve the game in India and help design a series of sports centric growth models. We will utilize our athletic and management expertise in promoting sports and developing Atletico de Kolkata.”
The last line was something that should have been taken seriously but most would have passed it off as big talk, after all reviving Indian football is one tough task with very few interested parties even within the I-League, who have been facing problems with sponsors.
After a couple of games we can see how well this Atletico de Kolkata team has been drilled. They are coached by Antonio Lopez Habas, who had been a player for Atletico Madrid and has had coaching stints with Valencia and Bolivia in his career; he is ably helped by his assistant coach and Kolkata legend Jose Ramirez Barreto. The Spanish influence just does not stay with the name of the team and the coaching staff; it runs deep into the players as well.
The Spanish spine
The marquee player for the franchise is Luis Garcia, best known for his time at Liverpool. He is the main threat in attack when playing for the red and white of Kolkata. The midfield has Borja Fernandez, who has played for Real Madrid and Jofre Mateu, who was on Barcelona’s books, building the spine of the team. Josemi, another Spaniard plays in defense as the right back.
The team spent a whole month away in Spain, training and playing practice games against lower league Spanish sides. It wasn’t just a sightseeing excursion, this was actually a professional preseason tour which most European sides take part in before the start of the season to build chemistry in a team.
Chemistry is something which is very important for any football team and having a quartet of Spanish speakers playing regularly has worked wonders for the Kolkata club. They are the only outfit that seems to be capable of playing some good football. With the midfield of Borja, Nato and Jofre, they could have the best midfield in the league.
Up front the lanky striker Fikru, who scored the first ever goal in the ISL, has been a hit with the locals. Having scored two goals in as many games, he does remind you of the recent crop of Atletico Madrid strikers. He isn’t a Fernando Torres or a Sergio Aguero but seems more to be a Diego Costa or Mario Mandzukic. He isn’t gifted with pace but has a decent finish in him, the only criticism that one can label against him is that his work rate is a little low.
Their defense has not conceded a single goal till now, thanks especially to the heroics of their goalkeeper Subhasish Roy Chowdhury. His reflex save against Mumbai was top notch to say the least. They defend real deep and absorb as much pressure as they can. One thing that sticks out during corners is that all the 11 Atletico de Kolkata players are actually defending the corner within the penalty box. That is something you never really see these days.
In fact the entire team does play a lot like their parent team, Atletico Madrid. Kolkata starts off like a house on fire, attacking from the get go, once they get a lead though, they are willing to sit back and absorb the pressure. Their play centers around the Spanish players, it seems the team bonding exercise has played off a lot. Luis Garcia is the operator, playing freely and creating chances for the striker Fikru. Quick passing is mixed with hitting the opposition on the break. Both games have seen the club end up with less possession than their opponents but they have scored 5 goals and conceded none. Further they have scored goals in both games in the last minute.
The best out there
There may be more glorious teams out there with bigger named players like Alessando Del Piero, Pires and Anelka. The other teams may have bigger stars backing them like Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and John Abraham. However, based on the current state of affairs and the way the teams have played there is no doubt that Atletico de Kolkata have not just taken the name and jersey of Atletico Madrid, they want to play like them and win like them.
As Dada said in the during the unveiling of Atletico de Kolkata
“Our Club will try and bring together the best talent to form a team with the driving thought of ‘playing to win’. Kolkata has been central to football in our country and our objective is to ensure that we regain that position.”
The ISL may just be there for the taking.