Indian Super LeagueIt was a match befitting the final of the nearly 2½ month long tournament involving eight teams in Hero India Super League. The organizers scored great success in bringing in quality football on Indian soil and although Kerala Blasters put their hearts into the game, it was Atletico de Kolkata, who emerged as the ultimate champion. It was a thrilling contest, where victory was decided in a last-gasp effort from ATK’s Substitute player Mohammad Rafique, who arrived in the 74th minute of the match. Rafique scored the match-winner, when everyone had resigned to the onset of extra-time or possibly a penalty shootout. The match ended soon afterwards with Atletico De Kolkata fans going into rapturous celebrations. Kerala Blasters were devastated as they looked a better side for most part but that is football and only one team can win. The match also marked the climax of a long season that began in Kolkata on October 12. The packed stadium relished the contest between the two finalists, which was also billed as the clash between India’s most famous cricketing legends Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. These two have ownership stakes in the two sides and since Sachin Tendulkar lives in the maximum city, Kerala Blasters got unstinted support from the Mumbai crowd.

Before the match could get underway, spectators were treated to a glittering extravaganza that lasted for 20 minutes. The darkness of the night was illuminated by breathtaking fireworks as football-shaped balloons were released into the night sky. There were ball jugglers on display with their skills and acrobatics to mesmerize the viewers with their extraordinary ability and balance as the capacity crowd watched in awe at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai. 50 Chinese acrobats, clad in blue dresses ran around the stadium with the ISL flags and performed exercises that formed a human pyramid. Then came the dancers in silver dresses, to perform on popular Bollywood tunes, who also sang ISL theme song “Let’s Football”. A large numbers of celebrities were present on the occasion including Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke, who flew in from Spain for the final. The entire show turned out to be as grand a spectacle as any, and every one relished the event.

The match began with both teams charging against each other in the initial minutes. ATK benched skipper Luis Garcia, who had picked up an injury during the second leg semifinal against Goa but Spanish forward Arnal Llibert and Mohammad Rafi played upfront from the start and unfortunately, ATK couldn’t include Fikru Teffera. For defense, ATK had Podany, Kingshuk Debnath Arnab Mondal and Josemi. KB didn’t have star defender Cedric Hengbert but included English striker Michael Chopra. Canadian Iain Hume played as forward and David James returned for this all-important last game. Kerala began with a chance in the 5th minute, when Michael Chopra and Iain Hume combined well to enter the box but Josemi denied them the opportunity as he cleared the ball away. Six minutes later, Ishfaq Ahmed’s left-footed shot was blocked by ATK custodian Edel Bete. ATK got their first chance in the 25th minute, when Arnal Llibert relayed the ball to Mohammed Rafi, but Nirmal Chettri tackled dangerously and prevented Rafi from entering the box. Chettri earned a yellow card for his action but Podany’s free-kick went over the crossbar. ATK got their second chance in 35th minute but James made a reflexive save, when Llibert tried to slide the ball past him. KB’s best opportunity came in 40th minute but Iain Hume’s free-kick was saved by Bete.

After halftime, ATK gained momentum and started attacking the KB goal. But after the early chances were missed by ATK, Kerala was back into attacking mode again. Stephen Pearson made two attempts at ATK goal but while his first strike was saved by Bete, the second went off target. Chopra made many runs to the ATK goal but his closest chance came in the 83rd minutes, when he unleashed a stinging left-footed volley from less than 8 yards but Bete made his best save of the day by fisting away Chopra’s shot. After the goalless match went into stoppage time, everyone thought that the extra-time play would commence soon but ATK got a corner at crunch time and the strike from Jakub Podany came high. Several players jumped to head the ball but Mohammad Rafique reached first and as Sushanth Matthew, Sandesh Jhingan and David James reacted in various ways, the header got slotted at the left bottom corner to leave KB players shocked. There wasn’t enough time for KB to get the equalizer as ATK held on to the opportunistic lead and emerged the winners of the inaugural Hero ISL 2014.