KOCHI: In a refreshing shift from the past few seasons, an Indian Super League (ISL) final became less about foreign stars and more about Indian footballers alongside one of the most remarkable redemption stories witnessed in recent times.
The night at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda didn't belong to stars like Bartholomew Ogbeche or Adrian Luna. Instead, it belonged to Laxmikant Kattimani who was the shootout hero as Hyderabad FC broke Kerala Blasters' hearts by snatching a slice of history and winning their maiden ISL crown.
The night was also owned by India's rising talent as a young Keralite with his hair dyed blue, a young goalkeeper whose stocks continue to rise and a midfielder slowly re-emerging after having fallen off the radar starred in a gripping storyline here.
In what was an absorbing final on Sunday, India's U-17 World Cup star Rahul KP scored the opener for Blasters while Prabhsukhan Gill had another inspiring performance in goal with a string of stunning saves. With minutes left on the clock, Hyderabad midfielder Sahil Tavora struck one of the goals of the season as the two teams kept trading blows all night long until Kattimani produced a heroic performance to condemn Blasters to a third defeat in the final.
Over the years, Kattimani had become notorious for his often calamitous goalkeeping but the veteran keeper produced one of his most inspiring performances to date.
For two seasons, the ISL was played inside a bio-bubble without spectators, but the gates of the Fatorda stadium were thrown open to the fans.
After a season where the teams braved bio-bubble fatigue, Covid-19 outbreaks within the camps and a lack of crowd support which is the lifeblood of any sport, it was the last man standing. Midway through the season, when the Blasters camp was hit by Covid cases, their head coach Ivan Vukomanovic even exhorted that they didn't care about the football at that point.
However, his side soldiered on through the season to enter the final after a long gap of six years as their fans filled up the stadium. Hyderabad meanwhile was appearing in their first-ever final.
They went on to be coronated after a jarring game of football that typified how the league has evolved and improved since its inception back in 2014.
Back in the early editions, semi-retired superstars from the world over were brought in to try and capture the attention of fans who were only warming up to the sport outside of the traditional footballing hotbeds.
Here, the protagonists were primarily homegrown footballers and more importantly, young footballers who could be the face of Indian football for years to come.
Besides Vazquez hitting the crossbar and Javier Siverio drawing a point-blank save from Gill, the first half was a cagey affair that ended goalless.
Blasters were missing their star man Sahal Abdul Samad who did not make the squad. As Hyderabad was turning the screws, Gill kept his side in the contest with some stunning saves.
Just ahead of him, another Indian talent, Hormipam Ruivah, was doing an admirable job in marking Ogbeche.
Quite fittingly, it was Kerala's local boy Rahul who broke the game open, striking a long ranger in the 68th minute to send the fans into ecstasy.
With less than two minutes left of normal time, Tavora struck a thunderous volley from around 30 yards out. It was the first time that two Indians scored in an ISL final.
Both teams pushed each other to the limits and eventually, Hyderabad reigned supreme as the dust settled while Blasters were left to wonder.