With a win over Hyderabad FC, ATK Mohun Bagan qualified for the AFC Cup preliminary round. However, they won’t compete in it with this name. The name that will be registered to AFC won’t have ATK in it.
The biggest moment of March 18 (ISL Finale Day) wasn’t the Mariners’ victory, it was the comeback of the identity in its ‘true’ sense. During the victory celebrations, Goenka announced that from next season on, the team will play as ‘Mohun Bagan Super Giants’. Word in the street was that the trophy, if any, would be ‘boycotted’. But following the news, the team received a grand reception in Kolkata.
The merger that happened in 2020 was considered a ‘slap’ on football legacy. Around the same time as Chuni Goswami got his commemorative stamp from the Indian Postal Department, Mohun Bagan sold 80% shares of its football department to the ATK owners. The overall idea of the merger didn’t sit right with the fans and the owners certainly didn’t expect that to happen. However, the merger guaranteed a berth to the ISL.
Citing the intention of sabotaging legacy, the fans loathed the word ever since. #RemoveATK protests took place in wide measures. A lot happened but in the end, all of this didn’t just end up as white noise. Mohun Bagan faithfuls got what they wanted.
The word ATK may be perceived with controversies and a bit of carelessness in audience research. But as time will pass, this word will be associated with memories and will be looked up as a case study in itself.
If we look at it in a way, ATK never had its own colour. It inherited the red and white stripes from Atletico Madrid and later on, the green and maroon of Mohun Bagan. When it camped itself at Salt Lake, people had mixed reactions. There were concerns about whether in a historically rich center, a franchise identity like ATK will be able to establish itself or not. On the other hand, it gave the opportunity for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans to unite in order to support ‘Kolkata’ in an unofficial league. Not to mention that cricketing legend Sourav Ganguly was involved in the ownership as well, who is widely idolized in Bengal. The average home turnout in the inaugural season was just over 45,000 – second best to JLN Kochi. The season opener against Mumbai City FC is still the second-highest recorded attendance in ISL.
“First Champions Forever”
That season opener.. ask even a casual football fan in Kolkata about ISL and he will reminisce about that Fikru Teferra Summersault. The Ethiopian really did set the stage for the rest of the league. Borja Fernandez’s through ball, on-rushing Subrata Paul, Fikru’s first-time chip from roughly 20 metres, and a momentous celebration that will be stuck in minds forever.
Off late, the ATK Mohunbagan recruitment planning has been accused of wasting whatever limited pool of talent there is in Indian Football. But not many people remember that in the 2014 final, they started with an all-Indian front three – Baljit Sahni from the right, Sanju Pradhan from the left, and Mohammad Rafi through the middle. And that came when teams were allowed to field as many as six foreigners at a time.
Off the very last kick of the tournament, Mohammed Rafique headed it home and immortalized ATK (Atletico de Kolkata at that time) as the “first champions forever”.
The Art of ISL
After lifting it in 2014, they did it again in 2016 against the same opponents. Canadian Iain Hume had jumped ship this time. He was spearheading the attack as the striker.
The transfer window of 2016 was quite big for the franchise. They had finished second in the league the previous season but went out in the semis. Jose Molina was the man to lead after Antonio Habas left. Amongst foreigners, ATK retained Tiri, Ofense Nato, Sameehg Doutie, and Iain Hume. A total of nine players were loaned in from both the Kolkata Giants. Two of them were Pritam Kotal and Prabir Das – who would go on to become an integral part of the franchise.
Molina’s men had almost let the playoffs opportunity go but Northeast’s final-day loss meant that ATK got to keep the fourth spot. After a 3-2 aggregate win against Sunil Chhetri’s Mumbai City FC, they went on to win the final in a penalty shootout in Kochi. Another 2016 arrival, Debjit Majumder, turned out to be the hero for Kolkata.
In both campaigns, ATK wasn’t a top-two team in the league. On both occasions, they just got into the top four of an eight team-league. Knockouts were where they produced their ‘A’ game when the silverware was directly in sight. One of the most valid criticisms of ISL in the previous decade was that it didn’t recognize the league leaders. It followed the IPL format and the only recognised winner was the one on the showpiece day. So the pressure of performing consistently throughout the season for a trophy was completely out of the play.
ATK’s next title came in 2020 after defeating Owen Coyle’s resurgent Chennaiyin side in the final. It was for the first time that the league recognized the table toppers and rewarded them with silverware and a direct place in the AFC Champions League. ATK were in the race for it but decisive losses in the closing games didn’t help their case.
In 2020-21, the first season of the merger, they competed with Sergio Lobera’s Mumbai City FC for the shield and the playoff trophy. They lost it directly to their rivals on the final day of both league and playoff. But a pattern has been observed that ever since the consistent league performances have started getting rewarded, Sanjeev Goenka has injected more money into the club. As a result of which, deals involving transfer fees have started becoming more and more common in the league. In recent times, they have splashed the cash for the likes of Michael Soosairaj (2019-20), Sandesh Jhinghan (2020-21), Hugo Boumous (2021-22), Liston Colaco (2021-22), Amrinder Singh (2021-22), Anwar Ali (2023-24).
Kolkata is a hotbed of football and a team coming out of that city is bound to have a fair few rivals. Over the years, ATK had a few exciting matchups – some based on performances, some based on fans.
When they faced Kerala Blasters FC in the inaugural final, it was supposed to be seen as two representatives of two of the biggest hotspots in Indian Football facing each other off for a fair title. But what most of the media saw was Sachin Tendulkar vs Saurav Ganguly.
With time, this fixture got more and more recognized by the media, fans, and organizers. The addition of the green-and-maroon enhanced its significance. In fact, the fixture (ATK Mohun Bagan included), was used as the season opener for five seasons in a row – Star and FSDL’s favourite rivalry?
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal entered the league in the same season. Debate remains on whether they needed the league or the league needed them. Nonetheless, it was a big occasion. Both the clubs struggled to enter in their own way. However, fate so far has been the polar opposite. Bagan leads 7-0 (including Durand Cup) since having ATK in their name.
In monetary terms, the only club that rivals them currently is Mumbai City FC – a City Football Group-backed club. These two fight for every big domestic player in the market. Other great matchups for the franchise club have been with Bengaluru FC and FC Goa.
The RPSG side has won four ISL titles under three different managers. All three of them are Spanish, in different styles. The most recent one came under Juan Ferrando. But who really stood out was Habas.
The Spaniard had an unlikable brand of football. In 2019-20, ATK had the worst average possession numbers (43%). But that was part of the plan. The side spearheaded by David Williams, Roy Krishna, and Edu Garcia created the most number of chances and scored the most number of goals (33) after FC Goa – with the second-best defensive record as well (16).
These stats bide well with the philosophy of Habas. “Why pass around your own half when you can score in three passes?”. The clinical performances of the former Wellington Phoenix duo in front of the goal really help them achieve the feat that season. There was criticism pointed towards the coach when he put Michael Soosairaj in the left wing-back position. But he came out with flying colours – emerging as the best dribbler in the league. Sumit Rathi, the 18-year-old left-footed Centre Back, won the Emerging Player of the Season. That side had Prabir Das being a livewire down the right wing. His MOTM performance against Bengaluru FC in the semifinal second leg is one for the ages.
Antonio Lopez Habas is certainly synonymous with the identity of ATK. If there is a campaign that best describes it, it was this.
There still may be a lot of things to commemorate – players or performances. Say, Prabir Das, Borja Fernandez, Helder Postiga, Sameehg Doutie, Tiri, Cavin Lobo, Sheikh Jewel Raja, Arindam Bhattacharya, etc. Next year, ISL will turn 10. And it will be a major void to not see ‘ATK’ in it. A certain group of people may celebrate it for obvious reasons. But all things considered, ATK will be missed.
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