A team never beaten: How Hyderabad FC overcame one hurdle after another to be crowned Hero ISL champions

March 20, 2022, the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium is packed to the rafters. The spectators have returned for the first time to the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) in more than two years. Oh, and there is also the small matter of a Hero ISL title clash to decide.

Kerala Blasters FC begin the game like a house on fire. They rattle along at hundred miles per hour and cause Hyderabad FC all sorts of problems. They press with intensity. They attack incessantly down the flanks and are quick to find their star-studded forward line whenever possible.

Adrian Luna, like he always does, is weaving pretty patterns. Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Pereyra Diaz are hustling and harrying Hyderabad FC into submission, and more importantly, Kerala Blasters FC look every bit the champion side they have been touted to be.

At the start of the second half, though, things become a little wobbly for Kerala Blasters FC. Not because they have failed to create as many clear-cut openings as expected, but because Hyderabad FC begin establishing a foothold in the biggest match of their lives.

So much so that when Rahul KP picks the ball up in the inside right channel outside the box in the 68th minute, it is against the run of play. Rahul has a brief glimpse at the support around him and then he decides to let fly – probably with the sort of gay abandon you don’t usually associate with a Hero ISL final.

The ball floats tantalisingly in the air but seems primed to lodge into Laxmikant Kattimani’s gloves. There is not a lot of dip and swerve. But there is the pressure of a final – pressure that ultimately cripples Kattimani, meaning that the ball squirms underneath him and sends thousands clad in the Kerala yellow into immediate delirium.

For a moment, he hangs his head down in disappointment and might have even muttered to himself that he has let his team down. His teammates, though, do not let him feel that way. They embrace him and tell him that mistakes can happen. Most tellingly, they make him realise that he needs to be at his best when his moment comes.

His moment comes after sixty more minutes of attrition. As was the case at the start of the game, both teams are deadlocked and there is barely anything to separate the two sides – on paper, on ability and on the sheer number of match-winners present.

Match Report: Laxmikanth Kattimani the hero as Hyderabad FC beat Kerala Blasters FC on penalties to win first Hero ISL title

On this manic night at the PJN stadium, however, Hyderabad FC’s unity and strength in the collective just nudges them past Kerala Blasters FC. It isn’t lot and it isn’t something that is cast as a potentially defining factor in a title game. Yet, it is quite a lot, especially when talking about the obstacles Hyderabad FC have hurdled over since their inception in the Hero ISL.

There will be countless hours of discussion over how the penalty shootout transpired and how Kerala Blasters FC perhaps cracked. This night, though, should be all about how Hyderabad FC – both on the night of the final and throughout the season, managed to dig in together, got into the trenches together and ultimately, emerged from the myriad rubbles unscathed. Together.

It would have been very easy for Kattimani to sulk and for the rest of his teammates to baulk at what could have been a very disappointing evening. But they didn’t. Instead, they did what champions do.

This, by the way, was also one of the many times Hyderabad FC staved off defeat and trumped their rivals. Before the semi-final against ATK Mohun Bagan, they had bagged 10 points from losing situations. In the first-leg, they went a goal behind but triumphed 3-1, courtesy of goals from Bartholomew Ogbeche (who else), Javier Siverio and Mohammad Yasir.

Against Kerala Blasters FC, they saw their opponents surge into the lead again. This time, Ogbeche didn’t beacon them out of trouble. But Sahil Tavora did. Remember, this was a player who had barely featured for Hyderabad FC this season, yet still managed to find the moment of magic when it most mattered.

So, in a nutshell, this final was all about two of Hyderabad FC’s relatively unheralded stars standing up. Kattimani, despite being their first-choice keeper, might not have been the player many felt would have forcefully bent the summit clash to his team’s liking. Similarly, Tavora, with the galaxy of stars at HFC’s disposal, might not have been earmarked for eternal glory.

That, though, is also illustrative of how Hyderabad FC have almost always found a way this season. They haven’t tasted defeat after going ahead in the campaign and have bagged more points than anyone else when they have gone behind. They have also scored more goals than any other Hero ISL outfit.

In many ways, this was the perfect campaign any club could have enjoyed. The spin to this story is that it was perfect for its imperfections. There were patchy spells. There were hairy scares (Kattimani letting through Rahul’s shot being an example). There were games where Hyderabad FC seemed to lose their early-season impetus.

What was an ever-present, however, was a champion mentality – a mentality that Kattimani, Tavora and almost every member (support staff included) embodied when push came to shove.

Football is often a game of very fine margins. Sunday fell well into that category. Yet, as long as you have a team that has faith in itself, has developed a habit of entering and emerging from tricky terrains together and are as sharpy mentally in adverse circumstances as they are in free-flowing circumstances, that is a recipe for success.

Hyderabad FC know it first-hand now. And, after their remarkable ascent to the top, it will forever be etched in Indian footballing folklore too.

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