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When fatafati blended with tiki-taka

Even though their football was not eye catching, Atletico de Kolkata emerged victorious in ISL because they started preparing early in Spain and their formidable midfield

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When fatafati blended with tiki-taka
While Atletico de Kolkata’s Mohammed Rafique (in picture) was the star of the final, their success was largely due to their pre-season training in Spain
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Kolkata, the City of Joy, has arguably been the most football-crazy city in the country. One just has to witness an East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan match to know the fans' enthusiasm, or fanaticism for that matter.

The 'Gods' of the beautiful game —Lionel Messi, Pele and Maradonna — have entertained the capital city of West Bengal. Why, they even have the second largest football stadium in the world (Salt Lake Stadium). So was it destiny that Atletico de Kolkata won India's most commercially viable tournament, the Indian Super League (ISL)?

One may argue that Kerala Blasters created more chances in the final, while Kolkata were content being midfield maestros. Again, one may assert that they played boring football in a goalless 220 minutes of the semifinal against FC Goa. In fact, they could have missed out on a semifinal berth altogether had it not been for a controversial penalty by Fikru Tefera against FC Goa which helped them get to the knockouts at the expense of Delhi Dynamos.

Nothing is achieved without hard work, and the team from Kolkata really did work hard. Things got serious after they tied up with La Liga defending champs and Champions League runners-up Atletico Madrid. After this move, the team was able to start training at the earliest. That too in the best of facilities. The month-long training was conducted at Los Angeles de San Rafael ground in El Espinar —outskirts of Madrid — which is at an altitude of 1,240 metres above sea level.

Their training consisted of specific exercises with players practising ball coordination, energy and agility movements to help them keep the pace up for 90 minutes. Their training also involved various ball works and building up stamina with working groups and defensive tactical synchronisation. Such training methods were unheard of, at least for an Indian team.

Getting expert tactical and medical advice from one of the best clubs in Spain helped them, Indians in particular, to be ready for the challenges that a tournament of this magnitude throws their way.

One of the reasons that Atletico Madrid won the La Liga and reached the Champions League final for the second time, was because of a strong defence and a robust midfield. And the team from Kolkata seemed to have taken a leaf from their namesake of sorts.

Spaniards Borja Fernandez and Jofre Gonzalez controlled the midfield. Their marquee player Luis Garcia played just ahead of them, as attacking midfielder. The three of must have spent a lot of time at the drawing board, practising the elementary triangular-style football, which they executed with perfection, making it a delight for fans and a nightmare for the opposition.

Kolkata rarely let control of the midfield slip to the opposition. They may not have played the Spanish-style tika-taka way, but their short passes and through balls in the middle of the field were a delight to watch.

Salgaocar coach Derrick Pereira said, "There wasn't much difference among the teams in the ISL. In the end, Atletico won because they were superior in the midfield. When a management shows so much commitment, it pumps up the players. Ultimately, that was the difference."

Then they had the defenders. Arnab Mondal and Josemi combined well in the central defensive position to thwart any attack that came their way. Proof of that lies at the fact that the team conceded the least number of goals (10) along with FC Goa.

Even appointing their coaching staff was a masterstroke. Their manager Antonio Habas, a former manager of Valencia CF, has been a coaching veteran in the upper two divisions of the Spanish Football League. He was assisted by Jose Barreto who plied his trade in Kolkata and has become a Mohun Bagan legend. The Spanish and Kolkata football philosophies seemed to have blended well, helping the Spanish and Indian footballers to work better together.

In the end, Mohammed Rafique's header in the fourth minute of injury-time may have won Kolkata the crown, but the fact of the matter is that they were the team that prepared the most. In a way, they carved out their destiny.

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