The Indian Atleti are one step away from becoming the first champions of Indian Super League. The final of the ISL season is to played on Saturday against the Kerala Blasters in Mumbai.
One of the nicknames of Atleti is Los Indios (The Indians), because the club used to have a big number of players from Latin America. Today they still do but now it’s much more than a nickname.
The club has a franchise in the newly born Indian Super League, and it carries the colours and name. Atlético de Kolkata, the former capital of India. The real India this time, not the one Columbus
mistook it for!
A former British colony, India has a long history in football. They qualified for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, but they withdrew due to high travel cost.
It also has one of the oldest club competitions in the world, the Indian Football Association Shield, which started in 1893. India didn’t have a league competition until 1996, when the National Football League started, later renamed the Air-Tel I-League in 2007.
But neither the IFA Shield or I-League succeeded in increasing the popularity of football in the subcontinent, lagging far behind cricket. So a new league competition was created.
The new Indian Super League uses a franchise system where there is no promotion and relegation, you just need to buy a license to participate in the league, much like the United States’ MLS, NFL and NBA.
Eight major Indian cities were selected for the new venture – and the opportunity was too good for the Atlético Madrid board to turn down.
Excited about expanding the Atleti brand across Asia, they submitted a joint bid for the Kolkata franchise. Alongside the retired Indian cricket star Sourav Ganguly and a group of businessman, the bid was successful. Atlético Madrid reportedly own around 25% of the franchise.
Six other franchises are owned or co-owned by Indian celebrities – mainly cricket players and Bollywood stars. Every team is obliged to sign one ‘marquee player’ and seven other foreigners, so many big names came to the ISL like Del Piero, Nesta, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Marco Materazzi, Silvestre, Adrian Mutu and former Atletico de Madrid player Luis Garcia.
Luis Garcia became the captain of Atlético de Kolkata, and with massive media coverage across TV and the Internet, the ISL was the subject of worldwide attention in its first season.
The success of the Indian Super League is success for Atlético Madrid, doubly so if Atlético de Kolkata are winning.
India is a market of 1.25 billion people. Despite the ill-feeling towards both Enrique Cerezo and Gil Marín (and his late father) from a lot of Atleti fans, we have to give them the credit they deserve for this shrewd move.
Sometimes it seems that Liverpool are benefiting from Kolkata’s success more than Atleti. This is down to Luis Garcia, who despite playing for both Barcelona and Atleti, is best remembered for his great time with the reds in England, especially in 2005 when they won UEFA Champions League .
In many Kolkata games you will see Liverpool flags in the stadiums, and social media will be awash with tweets from Liverpool fans about the game. Maybe we should get rid of him and replace him with another marquee player who is more Rojiblanco, like Diego Forlan!
It wasn’t a surprise to see Atletico de Kolkata adopt a Spanish flavour. The team is coached by Antonio Lopez Habas, who signed for Atletico Madrid in 1985-86 but never appeared in an official match. He went on to coach Atlético B in his first coaching role.
The Road to the Final
After a pre-season in Los Angeles de San Rafel – a resort just few kilometres outside of Madrid where Atleti hold their pre-seasons as well, Kolkata started their campaign in ISL first edition very strongly, leading the league from week 1 to week 8 (the whole first round).
In the second round they struggled a lot, managing to win only once in eight games. But thanks to the good run of form in the first half of the season, and the results of their competitors, they only needed a draw at home versus second placed FC Goa in the last game to reach the play-offs.
This feat wasn’t easy. Kolkata were1 -0 down at home, the 120,000 seater Salt Lake stadium, until a penalty awarded in the last 20 minutes was converted by Fikru Tefera, the Ethiopian who was Kolkata’s stand-out player and top-scorer.
The draw ensured Kolkata finished third in the table, setting up a semi-final rematch against FC Goa. This time without Fikru, who was out through injury.
The rematch was a tactical battle between Antonio Lopez Habas and Goa’s coach, the Brazilian legend Zico. Both legs finished 0-0, which meant the tie needed to be settled with penalty kicks. Atlético de Kolkata came out 4-2 winners to progress.
The final takes place on Saturday 20th December at the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai against the Kerala Blasters, who almost threw away a 3-0 first leg lead in their semi-final against Chennaiyin, the team featuring and also coached by Marco Materazzi.
Chennaiyin had pulled it back to 3-3 on aggregate, and looked set to complete the comeback. That was until Materazzi was characteristically sent-off, allowing Kerala to snatch the winner in the 117th minute.
Atlético and Kerala have met twice already this season. In Kolkata, the visitors drew 1-1, while the team managed by former England goalkeeper David James managed to snatch a 2-1 win in Kochi.
The final will be a difficult game for our Indians.
Can they win the ISL, and what would this mean to Atlético Madrid? Do you follow the news from Kolkata, or does it not interest you?