Whatever the pre-match narratives (and there were plenty) of the weight this contest between Gokulam Kerala and ATK Mohun Bagan held, they were swiftly overlooked as two heavyweights of Indian football exchanged blow-after-blow in a special match of pure, unadulterated football.
The final scoreline read 4-2 in Gokulam's favour, which in itself is a mammoth achievement for the first Kerala club to feature in an AFC competition. The manner of the victory though, was even more stirring than anything one could conjure up in their head.
15 minutes in, as Roy Krishna watched his curled shot cannon off the inside of the post and trickle out, Bagan seemed firmly in control. Nerves flowing through every inch of their being, Gokulam looked a shadow of the side that went 16 games unbeaten in their march to the I-League title only four days prior. Heavy touches, miscontrolled passes, panicked hoofs into Row Z with a nervy goalkeeper were all on display as they looked like rank amateurs, not champions, in that opening quarter of an hour.
Indeed, Bagan could well have wrapped up the game in that period. Krishna missed two gilt-edged chances that a match-sharp version of him would have gobbled up. Moments later, the only Gokulam player who did not look overawed, Jourdain Fletcher, stung the palms of Amrinder Singh, serving to remind his teammates of the quality they possessed.
Gokulam grew into the game, and despite Joni Kauko also going close for Bagan, the first half ended goalless. Tiri went off injured for Bagan prior to the break, perhaps explaining the chaos that followed soon after.
And it was a chaotic start to the second half with Luka Majcen also doing his best Roy Krishna impression seconds into it, missing a beautifully fashioned chance (created by Emil Benny) in front of goal. Fletcher, though, the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling's 'If', kept his head while the others around him were losing theirs, to find Thahir Zaman in acres of space down the right. A cutback to an unmarked Majcen in the middle of the box followed, and Gokulam had their first ever AFC Cup goal.
Vincenzo Alberto Annese expresses his views ��️
- Gokulam Kerala FC (@GokulamKeralaFC) May 18, 2022
Their joy didn't last too long, though, with Gokulam reverting to some schoolboy defending three minutes later. Liston Colaco found Pritam Kotal with ease from a corner, and the defender tucked the ball in - barely troubled by Muhammed Uvais who was marking him.
Another three minutes later and it was Fletcher once more, down the left wing this time. He checked inside, and with multiple teammates yelling for the ball, took his time to find Rishad on the edge of the box. He stroked the ball past a diving Amrinder to give his side the lead.
Bagan, in contrast, looked ever more panicked - Juan Ferrando's trademark mask under the nose looking even more disheveled than usual. This was a long, long way from those opening 15 minutes. The gaps were starting to appear in the Bagan defence, with substitute Ashutosh Mehta taking a gamble trying to shepherd the ball with Fletcher all over him. The Jamaican nicked the ball away, and sent Luka Macjen through on goal, and Gokulam's leading scorer made no mistake, arrowing it into the bottom corner to make it 3-1.
One would think that was the end of it, but... football, eh?
Liston Colaco proved exactly why he's the most coveted Indian footballer at the moment, with a delicious free-kick in the 80th minute. Gokulam's nerves returned, and it seemed the reserves of energy expended in their 2-1 win to win the I-League four days ago had emptied.
Substitute Jithin MS did have the legs though, and as his manager Vincenzo Annese has always encouraged his midfielders to make attacking runs, Majcen sent him through with a trivela of the highest quality. Jithin sealed things with a calm finish, putting Gokulam 4-2 up in the 89th minute and ending the contest.
Gokulam had silenced a 40000+ strong crowd four days ago and repeated that trick once more, with the roughly 32000 crowd that had come to cheer for Bagan left stunned.
It's a result that ought to leave followers of Indian football stunned as well - the I-League has effectively become a second-tier competition - it doesn't feature the best domestic players and any successful imports are swiftly snatched away by the richer ISL clubs. For Gokulam to show that at the end of the day, football is simply that - a ball, 22 players, grass and two goals - amidst all of money that seems to talk ever so louder in the off-season, is refreshing.
Annese came out swinging after the game - noting that this was a victory for the I-League, saying 'There is no difference at all. We can see that coach Stimac - most of the time - doesn't give a chance to our players in the national team. I'm very disappointed about this, because if ATK have all the national players, and we beat ATK 4-2, missing two-three chances to score... the football federation of India must understand that there is no difference between I-League and ATK (ISL)... I can make an analysis video and show that Real Kashmir, who were fighting for relegation in I-League, gave us more problems than ATK.'
There is a very real chip on the shoulder here amongst I-League clubs, but there is light at the end of the tunnel - next year's I-League winners have been promised a place in the Indian Super League the season after that, so Gokulam could soon be joining India's 'top' football tier.
This victory might not have made champions of Gokulam, but arguably even more precious in their sight, have made them equals. Indian football, and their opponents in the AFC Cup, might do best to wake up and take notice. Gokulam Kerala are here to stay, on merit.