From Euro 2020 to Hero ISL: How ATK Mohun Bagan's Joni Kauko slowly grew in stature in unfamiliar territory
Midfielder Joni Kauko - ATK Mohun Bagan’s most effective recruit in the Hero ISL 2021-22 has come a long way since his arrival in India. So far, his story is one for the ages.
Midfielder Joni Kauko - ATK Mohun Bagan’s most effective recruit in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 has come a long way since his arrival in India. So far, his Indian journey has been nothing short of incredible.
Transcending the normal hierarchy at Finland-based Inter Turku to kickstart his professional career, Kauko relished the club’s greatest hour, as he was part of their only domestic league cup win, back in 2008. It was his first season in the top-flight, following three transitional years at the club’s youth setup, making eight appearances in the whole season. After winning three trophies in five terms, he shifted to rivals FC Lahiti.
The career graph of Kauko had never been extraordinary, but he’s done enough to keep his prominence in the European circle, having played for clubs like Randers and Esjberg in the Dannish Superliga (top-tier), along with stints in Germany with FSV Frankfurt and FC Energie Cottbus. Having made three appearances in Euro 2020 with the national team, Kauko was then set on a mission to conquer unknown territory - Hero ISL.
ATK Mohun Bagan, known to pull-off big-shot signings in the transfer window, grabbed headlines overnight by hinting at an import from Euro 2020 over social media. With Hugo Boumous, a tried and tested attacking playmaker in the Hero ISL already in their ranks, Kauko's arrival raised questions on who amongst the two would get a spot in the playing XI, with the four-foreigner rule already applicable.
Kauko made his debut for the Mariners in the Hero ISL 2021-22 campaign opener against Kerala Blasters FC, where he played as a central midfielder alongside Boumous. Even though he was not very effective in the opening game, Kauko showed sparks of brilliance in the following game - the Kolkata Derby, where he tormented the SC East Bengal players and provided an assist en-route to a 3-0 win.
The performance in that game was enough to keep him in prominence for the rest of the season, as he was almost regular until head coach Antonio Lopez Habas’ departure paved the way for Juan Ferrando’s entry. Luckily for him, the change of personnel opened up new avenues for him, as the Spaniard handed him a more advanced role, playing him mainly as an attacking midfielder or a winger.
Kauko’s impeccable game reading and ability to breach the defence with pinpoint through balls gave ATK Mohun Bagan a breath of fresh air, as he helped the side complete a 15-match unbeaten streak and finish in the third spot. The footballer scored thrice and assisted an equal number of times in the last eight matches of the Hero ISL 2021-22.
The Mariners’ exit was not surprising considering the way Hyderabad FC fared, but, in Kauko, they had discovered a footballer on whom they can depend on for future endeavours. With an average of more than 31 passes per game in Hero ISL 2021-22, maintaining a percentage of 80.22, he was way beyond an average player. Kauko was the fifth highest assist (6) provider in the season and the most among ATK Mohun Bagan players.
What really gives Kauko the edge is his solidly built structure, which helps him win physical battles on the field with ease. Not gifted with the skills of Boumous, or shooting prowess of Roy Krishna, but Kauko makes it up with his passing ability and towering presence.
With players injured, Kauko stepped up in ATK Mohun Bagan’s AFC Cup campaign as well. Two goals against Sri Lanka’s Blue Star SC in the qualifying round was just a trailer of what was brewing in the corner. Having already lost a game in the group stage where the margin for error was less, the Mariners needed to up the ante in the remaining group stage matches to progress. Pitted against Bashundhara Kings and Maziya FC, Kauko assisted once and scored twice to steer ATK Mohun Bagan to the Inter-Zonal Semi-Finals.
With another year left on his contract, Kauko can only grow in stature in Indian football. However, there is a long break now, with the Mariners’ next match only to be played in September. For Kauko, acclimatising to this part of the world has not been easy, especially having come from the Scandinavian climate to the humid Indian shores of Goa and now the eastern metropolis - Kolkata.
Just a few days into the season, people might have wondered whether the sultry conditions could become a hurdle for Kauko from playing his natural game. But, as the days passed, slowly and steadily - Kauko got accustomed to the surroundings, and his graph also improved simultaneously. The footballer is now an integral part of the squad, establishing himself as the primary assist provider.
Kauko is arguably one of the biggest signings in Indian football in recent times, recruited fresh after a major international tournament. Kostas Katsouranis of Greece and Jonny Acosta from Costa Rica are other two international stars to have graced Indian football after major international events (2014 FIFA World Cup 2018 FIFA World Cup respectively). While the former have parted after small stints, Kauko, with the roles he plays for ATK Mohun Bagan, might stick around longer.