Atletico de Kolkata: The fans, the city and the way forward
“They call us plastic fans,” laments Kuntal Sarkar, an ardent Atletico de Kolkata supporter, a club he feels that “unites the city rather than divide it into two halves.”
A first-year student pursuing a degree in Maths, Kuntal’s real passion lies on the green pastures of the football field. A Bengali, many might say that football courses through the veins of the youngster with Kolkata being one of the biggest hotbeds of Indian football. However, unlike many other, Kuntal treads the not so common part of supporting Atletico de Kolkata, the ISL franchise from the city rather than East Bengal or Mohun Bagan.
“They think that ATK is here just to do business. They feel that today we will support ATK and if they lose, we will just move on,” said Kuntal as he poured his heart out about the club, the city and the Indian Super League.
The two clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, together have formed the fulcrum of Indian footballing history. With a combined history of more than 200 years, the clubs have produced idols worshipped by many and a trophy cabinet that's filled with trophies that include the biggest honours all across India. And in time, their names have fused into the fabric of every person in this part of the country.
However, Kuntal represents the new breed. The new generation of fans that no longer is satiated with just history but wants history to be re-written. A founding member of the ARK Fanatics, a fan club that aspires to provide boisterous support and help ATK win their second ISL title.
Having being forced to play their home games at Rabindra Sarobar stadium, instead of the club’s spiritual home ground of the Salt Lake stadium, the average number of 40,000 last season was supposed to take a hit. However, failing to fill up even a 12,000 seater has been a disappointment.
Earlier this season, Iain Hume and Debjit Majumdar had expressed their disappointment at the low turnout. And the ATK Fanatics feels there are several reasons behind the drop in numbers.
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“Last year when the games were being hosted at Salt Lake, the minimum price was around Rs. 150, this time it has gone up to Rs. 400 and those (400 tickets) are not freely available. They are getting out of stock really fast or gets distributed. To add to that a lot of complimentary tickets are being given away. The next step is Rs. 800 tickets, which becomes a bit too pricey for us.
“We have 20 to 25 very active members in our group, so we thought of going to at least a single game altogether to lend our voices. But that becomes nearly impossible due to the cost. On top of that one person can’t get buy more than 4 tickets, so that’s also been a restrictive factor as the fans are spread well around West Bengal. And the only place dispensing tickets is at Nazrul Manch.”
I-League and ISL merger hampering the attendance
The city of joy, Kolkata is also known as the city with a soul. The city inculcates a spirit of bonding with the life of the people. And Football has thus become a vital part of the ecosystem that they live in. However, unfortunately for Atletico de Kolkata, that bond already has its roots planted deeply in the heart of Bengalis across the city.
They not only support East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, they bleed in the colours of their lineage. And with a third club threatening to move them aside, the response has been pretty overwhelming.
“The ISL and I-League merger have become a huge issue. The die-hard East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have somewhat become anti-ATK. We have a good presence on social media and stay connected via WhatsApp and Facebook. And by the confrontations within these groups, I think we can say that that is becoming a big factor behind people not going for the games.”
“This is totally a fan created issue as we don’t think the ATK officials have any issue with them. The two clubs are too much connected to their lives and to imagine a third one coming in; some people just can’t take it all in.
“We have seen a bit of hate grow up amongst the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans. In the first two seasons, there was a good response. However, this time a lot of the football fans we have come across have gone anti-ATK.
“If Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid exist in the same city, I don’t understand why ATK can’t exist alongside Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in Kolkata
“There have been chants of ATK hatao, Kolkata bachao.”
ISL must be made the primary club
“Bengaluru FC have shown that three years is enough to rewrite Indian football history,” quips Kuntal.
Amongst all the naysayers, the ATK Fanatics, however, feel that Indian Super League is the way forward and must be made the primary club competition in the country. The professionalism the competition has brought to the footballing fraternity across the nation seems to have lit a fire in the young hearts and they have no doubts that ISL will do nothing but get India to the next level.
“We have seen a jump in India’s rankings. And the ISL has to be credited for it. In this short period of time, it has given the Indian team talents like Sandesh Jhingan. And in the future, we hope that many will come through the ranks in a similar vein.
“We are seeing players from FC Pune City getting a loan deal with Villareal. ISL is helping in Indian football. Even Stephen Constantine has had to concede that ISL is really helping.
ATK adding professionalism
On thing that seemed to have really rubbed off on the youngsters that have taken to the ISL in recent times is the professionalism. They are finally seeing a concerted and committed effort to make football a sport that young kids can aspire to play in their future.
The work of the league and teams have gone beyond just the ISL and that has been recognised by the fans at large. The youngsters are not only getting a chance to rub shoulders with the best in the league, but they are being groomed from an early age with infrastructure and opportunities that this country’s footballing scene has not witnessed before.
“One thing that ISL has really added is professionalism. ATK and Indian as a whole are committed to grassroots level of the game and that can only be a good thing. They have set up an academy at Barasat joining hands with Aditya Academy Senior Secondary School.
“ATK have to get some good coaching staff from Atletico Madrid, which we feel will be vital to get the basic techniques of these youngsters spot on.
“Even if every club can produce one decent player from their academies each season, that’s eight players coming out with the potential of playing for India."
Atletico de Kolkata and the fans
Atletico de Kolkata already have a recognised supporters group and Kuntal hopes that in times to come, the ATK Fanatics will be recognised. And they finally got to meet with some of their biggest superstars Iain Hume and Helder Postiga at a recent public event.
However, the Fanatics wished that there would be more communication from the club and its fans that are beyond the two month period of the league. "There is a lack of connection with the fans from the ATK side except for these two months. Even for the pre-season. ATK played a pre-season game with the B-side Atletico Madrid and we were totally not in the loop with what was happening. I hope this improves.”
The Kolkata team are in a bit of a worry at the moment. One win from the last four has seen Jose Molina’s slide three places from the top and are currently fourth on the table. With a crucial game against NorthEast up next, they would want the football mad Kolkata crowd to come out in throngs to support “their team” Atletico de Kolkata.