ATK’s ISL journey: A Spanish touch to a beautiful Indian football story

One of the original eight Indian Super League teams, ATK were the first team officially announced for the ISL in 2014.
By Utathya Nag

In the chapters of Indian Super League (ISL) history, ATK will always hold a special place.

Not only was the Kolkata-based club the first-ever ISL franchise, but it also stands tall as the most successful team in the tournament, having won the title a record three times in just six seasons.

Here’s a look at ATK’s ISL journey through the years.

Formation and ATK’s ISL entry

On May 7, 2014, ATK, then known as Atletico de Kolkata, was officially announced. Among the eight original franchise-based teams to take part in the inaugural edition of the ISL, ATK was the first club to be unveiled, hence earning them the moniker of the first ISL team.

Kolkata-based businessman Sanjiv Goenka was the principal owner of the team. Former Indian cricket team captain Sourav Ganguly and other top Indian businessmen like Harshavardhan Neotia and Utsav Parekh came in as co-owners.

La Liga side Atlético de Madrid was also roped in as one of the co-owners and strategic partners. In fact, the name Atletico de Kolkata, the team’s red and white colours and the logo were heavily inspired by the Spanish team.

It was also the most expensive among the original eight ISL franchises, costing almost USD 3 million.

Based out of Kolkata, often considered the Mecca of Indian football, the team was well-supported. Initially, fans from all three big Kolkata legacy clubs, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, converged to support ATK as the only Kolkata team in the ISL.

The team gradually found its own identity and dedicated fanbase through years of success.

ATK’s ISL 2014 campaign: First champions

Due to their association with Atletico de Madrid, it was natural that there was a heavy Spanish influence on the team in their debut campaign in the ISL.

Veteran Spanish head coach Antonio Lopez Habas, who was involved with Atletico de Madrid’s youth setup at the time, was given the charge of ATK while former Liverpool legend and Spanish international Luis Garcia signed on as the marquee player.

In Borja Fernandez, a former Real Madrid midfielder, Josemi, former Liverpool and Villarreal player, and Jofre, the squad had a very strong Spanish flavour.

ATK were the home team in the very first ISL match played at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, where they beat Mumbai City FC 3-0. Ethiopian striker Fikru Taferra scored the very first goal of the ISL for ATK in the 27th minute of the match.

ATK went on to finish third in the table after the league phase but overcame FC Goa in the semi-finals and Kerala Blasters FC in the final to win the inaugural ISL season.

The final against Kerala was a tightly-contested one with a Mohammed Rafique strike in added time turning out to be the difference between the two sides on the day.

ATK’s ISL 2015 campaign: Iain Hume shines

Luis Garcia’s departure saw Portuguese World Cupper Helder Postiga come in as ATK’s marquee player for the second season. The team added Canadian international Iain Hume, who was sensational for Kerala Blasters in 2014 and had won the Hero of the League award.

Despite Postiga missing a large chunk of the season due to injury, Habas’ ATK booked a place in the ISL playoffs, finishing second, just two points behind toppers FC Goa.

Their title-defence, however, was ended in the semi-finals by eventual champions Chennaiyin FC, who won the two-legged affair 4-2 on aggregate.

Hume was the standout player for ATK with 11 goals in season 2.

ATK’s ISL 2016 campaign: The second title

After falling out with the management, Habas left ATK to join another ISL club FC Pune City heading into the 2016 ISL season. Former Atletico de Madrid goalkeeper and Villarreal manager José Francisco Molina came in as the new head coach, keeping the Spanish influence intact.

Molina is currently serving as the Spanish national team’s sporting director.

With Postiga sidelined for the majority of the season due to another injury again, ATK managed to sneak into the playoffs as the fourth-placed team at the expense of NorthEast United FC, who finished just two points behind them.

While the side looked far from being title contenders during the league phase, ATK players, led by the enigmatic Hume, managed to up the ante in the playoff rounds.

They beat table-toppers Mumbai City FC 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals and set up a final clash against Kerala Blasters.

Having beaten Kerala Blasters in the 2014 final, history was on ATK's side but they fell behind in the final. However, Henrique Sereno's equaliser forced the match to go into penalties.

Hume’s first spot kick was saved by Kerala goalkeeper Graham Stack but ATK eventually prevailed 4-3 on penalties to win their second ISL title.

ATK’s ISL 2017-18 campaign: The rechristening

The ISL 2017-18 season saw two very important changes for ATK.

Firstly, the addition of Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC extended the ISL pool to 10 teams for the very first time. Secondly, with Atletico de Madrid pulling out of their arrangement with the Indian side, the club was formally rechristened to ATK FC from Atletico de Kolkata.

With it, came an active intent to shift from a Spanish style to a more British style and consequently, Manchester United icon Teddy Sheringham was brought in as the new head coach. Irish international Robbie Keane was signed on as the marquee player.

ATK, though, failed to make a smooth transition and finished ninth among 10 teams with just four wins in 18 matches. This was the first time ATK failed to make it to the playoffs.

Sheringham was sacked after just 10 matches. He won just three of them.

ATK’s ISL 2018-19 campaign: Lack of goals

The experiment with a British head coach continued in season five, but this time with former Manchester City and Crystal Palace boss Steve Coppell at the helm.

Unlike Sheringham, though, Coppell came with ISL experience, having managed Kerala in the 2016 season and Jamshedpur in the 2017-18 campaign.

The team was also revamped with tested and proven ISL players like Manuel Lanzarote, Kalu Uche, Everton Santos, John Johnson and Gerson Vieira coming in.

Coppell, though, only managed a sixth-place finish with goal-scoring turning out to be the biggest concern. ATK managed to score just 18 goals in the league phase – the joint second-worst alongside ninth-placed Kerala. Only bottom-placed Chennaiyin scored less with 16.

ATK’s ISL 2019-20 campaign: Title No. 3

The sixth season saw ATK return to their Spanish roots with Habas returning for his second stint.

As expected, there was a return of ATK’s Spanish armada with the addition of Javi Hernandez and Agustin Garcia. Another Spaniard Edu Garcia was retained from the 2018-19 squad.

In addition, the team also roped in Roy Krishna and David Williams from A-League side Wellington Phoenix. Both were proven goal scorers in Australia and hit the ground running in the ISL.

With Habas’ intricate counter-attacking setup complementing Krishna and Williams’ driving runs, ATK reemerged as the top team yet again. They finished second on the points table to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

In the semis, ATK knocked out reigning champions Bengaluru before clinching the title against two-time winners Chennaiyin FC in the final.

With their third title, ATK became the most successful ISL team of all time.

Merger with ATK Mohun Bagan

Heading into the seventh season, ATK merged with Kolkata-based legacy club Mohun Bagan to form ATK Mohun Bagan – a brand new entity which is playing in ISL 2020-21.

To respect Mohun Bagan’s 131-year-old history and tradition in Indian football, ATK Mohun Bagan have adopted the traditional green and maroon colours of Mohun Bagan as well as the iconic sailboat logo with the addition of ATK in the text enveloping the badge.

Even if it's a fresh journey for ATK Mohun Bagan, the legacy of the red and whites with a heavy dose of Spanish influence, will live on forever.

Lead photo: Indian Super League/Twitter