The sound of silence: ATK's 'heart' overcomes 'horrible atmosphere'

Empty stands at the Nehru Stadium, Margao greet ATK players as they warm up, ahead of their Indian Super League (ISL) final against Chennaiyin FC. AFP

MARGAO - What a strange, beautiful ISL final this was. You see the score, you will get the bottom line - ATK beat Chennaiyin 3-1 to be crowned champions.

Simple, neh? Well, not so much, not considering the extraordinary background in which the whole thing was played out. The coronavirus outbreak that has brought the sporting world to a standstill meant the game was far from your average final.

The surreal nature of the contest hit you the moment you got to the stadium, hours ahead of the final.

Outside the stadium complex, there were cops clad in surgical masks at every gate, attempting to keep fans and COVID-19 at bay. Inside, the first thing you noticed was the eerie emptiness. Clad in billboards and posters, the Fatorda stood tall and proud, but it felt more movie set than sporting arena. A lone truck-mounted generator just inside the complex filled the air with its high-pitched whine. A couple of stray dogs joined in, squealing as they fought in the vast, desolate parking lot.

As the sun set, the Margao evening turning a pleasant shade of warm from the burning heat of the noon that preceded it, the players strode out to warm up, accompanied by the caw-cawing of crows circling above the stadium. The thud of boot on ball, the yells of the trainers, the laughter of the players echoing off the empty stands, filled the arena. The stadium announcer, still on the job, roared out each name, pausing as they always do, the players applauding their own names sporadically. Surreal, yet unforgettable.

It was a strange atmosphere, the season's biggest game being played out in front of no one -- the match that would crown the champions of India's first division having all the airs of a glorified training session.

There were flags and fireworks when the players finally re-entered the pitch for the match proper, a made-for-TV spectacle that simply looked strange from the vantage point of the press box, but all thoughts of how this match was going to be drowned in the sound of silence disappeared within the first minute of the actual football.

Rafael Crivellero, a mountain of a man whose touch and size just do not compute, danced his way through a backpedaling ATK defense before playing in Lallianzuala Chhangte. He squared it to Andre Schmerbi inside the box, whose sublime chip looped over a stranded Arindam Bhattacharya, but was cleared off the line by his right back Pritam Kotal. Those first sixty seconds set the tone for a rip-roaring half. Chennaiyin kept attacking, wave after wave disappearing in a clutter of backs-to-the-wall defending and terrible finishing. ATK stood their ground, and countered at pace.

And that is how they got the opener.

A total of 9.59 seconds was all it took for the ball to go from John Johnson's right foot in the ATK penalty box to the back of the Chennaiyin net via a lovely Roy Krishna cross that was volleyed into the ground and beyond an outstretched Vishal Kaith by Javi Garcia. A smashing goal that enabled ATK to stick to their counter-attacking plan-A.

For the first 30 minutes, the attacking players on both sides put on a show. Both teams had chances aplenty - Valskis hitting the crossbar from five yards after sitting Pritam Kotal down, Javi Hernandez hitting a Chennaiyin defender on the goalline with one shot and then hitting another with his follow-up.

As the match wore on, the ball stuck to Chennaiyin's feet. When Krishna limped off in the 40th minute, crying into his jersey, the pattern that had slowly been developing was set in concrete. It was now going to be one-way traffic. The half-time whistle could not have come at a better time for Antonio Habas.

The lack of vocal fan support didn't help matters for either side.

There were around 300 people in the stadium, the vast majority of them with the league as security or volunteers or with the TV crew, but the only partisan ones were those in the VIP area, club hierarchy and players' families. They did their best to whip up some sort of an atmosphere, shouting, encouraging, chanting in mismatched tunes.

"A bad atmosphere, horrible, we had to create it ourselves," Habas said after the game. "But, of course, health matters more than football".

The second half started with a bang. For ATK. David Williams got a free run at the opposing defence - the Chennaiyin midfield temporarily AWOL -- and slipped in Edu Garcia, who ghosted in between the lines and made no mistake with a calm side-footed pass into the far bottom corner.

It was the goal that Habas had been hoping, and praying, for. ATK kept falling back, deeper and deeper into their own half. The counterattacks stopped, first into a trickle and then into a full stop. A team that had started as a 3-5-2, changed into a 3-6-1, into a 5-4-1, into 5-5-0 and then finally 6-4-0. A wall of red and white.

Chennaiyin still kept getting chances and kept missing them. Shoulders started slumping, heads dropping. They all looked toward their coach after each mistake, and where there had only been encouragement before, now they found an angry man.

"We were sloppy in front of goal, and we conceded two soft ones. The first one was class, but the other two were so avoidable," Owen Coyle would say after the match.

Their attacks, incessant as they were, became repetitive, easy to predict, easy to stop. The ones that fell through the cracks were saved brilliantly by Arindam. "The man of the match, for me," Coyle declared.

Valskis, golden boot winner now, pulled one back with a shot that nearly took the net clean off its hinges. "I thought we were going to go on from there," shrugged Coyle. It wasn't to be, though.

The final goal sealed the deal, as Halder latched onto a sloppy, tired pass from Anirudh Thapa and chipped it in behind for Hernandez, who rounded goalkeeper and held off two defenders before slotting home.

"Don't tell me we didn't play the better football, that we weren't the better team" Coyle would laugh-challenge the press conference room afterwards. No one did, not even Habas.

"Yes, that's true. After we lost our captain [Krishna] we lost our confidence, our discipline. We couldn't find the necessary personality to [protect the lead]," the ATK manager said. He added, though, at the end, eyes crinkling with mischief, "ATK scored three goals, Chennaiyin just the one. So..."

So, it is what it is. ATK are champions of the ISL. Chennaiyin had worked up a miracle to get to the final in the first place, but this was just one loaf too many. On the other hand, a team that had been remarkably consistent throughout the vast majority of the regular season stepped up when it mattered. "Sometimes, we [don't win with good football], sometimes we win the heart, yeah?" Habas smiled.

Played out under such bizarre circumstances, with empty seats the only witness, the globe facing an unprecedented crisis, pessimism and negativity seeping into every corner, perhaps it was befitting that "the heart" played a key role in deciding the winner. Football, for the win.