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Mohun Bagan: End of an Era

With Mohun Bagan entering the ISL from next season, the legacy of the 130-year old club is at stake

ON SUNDAY, January 19, the biggest clash in Indian football, Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal or what is now popularly known as the Kolkata Derby was played to a usual jam-packed crowd at Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium. Some fans cheered while some were disappointed when Mohun Bagan triumphed over their arch-rivals with a 2-1 scoreline.

But this was the penultimate time that these two behemoths will clash, as Mohun Bagan will now join the Indian Super League next year, after businessman Sanjiv Goenka, who is one of the owners of the Kolkata ISL franchise, ATK bought 80% of the stakes in the club on January 16. From next season onwards, the club will be rechristened as ATK- Mohun Bagan.

It was a significant day in the history of the 130-year old club. They had been hunting for sponsors ever since Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries backed out as their main sponsors. The club had been in a financial rot for quite a time now, and since the I-League doesn’t have enough financial backing and not enough eyeballs to watch it, perhaps a move to a more cash-rich ISL seemed the only way forward.

Swapan Sadhan ‘Tutu’ Bose, a former Trinamool MP, ran Mohun Bagan like his kingdom  ever since McDowell quit as sponsors in 2014-15. His word was law because Bose, a prosperous businessman with major interests in cargo handling and media, spent close to six crores a year on the football team alone.

With little return of investment, it wasn’t surprising that Bose welcomed ATK. He said it was a business decision and no emotions were involved. Insiders say it will be interesting to see how long the relationship lasts.

The legacy ends

Let’s rewind the clock back to 1911. India was then under the British Raj, and the premier football tournament of not only the country but the whole of the Commonwealth was the IFA shield.

Mohun Bagan was the only ‘native’ team to participate in that tournament, and had created history by reaching the finals that year. Led by Shibdas Bhaduri, the team mostly comprised of semi-professional footballers, all of whom played barefoot. They were up against a strong team in East Yorkshire FC. Bu what transpired was historic. The green and maroon army won the IFA shield, thus becoming the first native club to do so.

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a speech acknowledged this win as one of the stepping stones in the freedom struggle against the British, and termed Mohun Bagan as ‘the national club of India’, a moniker that the fans still take pride in.

In fact, Mohun Bagan was the only big club in India that never hired a foreign player or coach till as late as 1990, when clubs like East Bengal and Mohammedan FC already had big foreigners as an essential part of their lineup.

In fact, the greatest attacking triumvirate India ever produced – Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee and Tulsidas Balaram – referred to by football expert Novy Kapadia as the “Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar of India”, all played at the same time for Mohun Bagan. In fact, Sailen Manna, considered the greatest Indian footballer, also played for the club. Indian legends like Subrata Bhattacharya, Shyam Thapa and Bhaichung Bhutia too have donned the green and maroon colours.

Playing for Mohun Bagan was a matter of pride for Indian players. Chuni Goswami once rejected an offer to play for Tottenham Hotspurs, one of Europe’s biggest clubs to play his entire life for Mohun Bagan.

“This is the legacy that the green and maroon jersey and the ‘sailing boat’ symbol of the club represent. Selling off 80% stake of such a historic club has tarnished a huge part of this legacy”, says long time Mohun Bagan fan Swapan Kundu. “It is like selling a part of your soul to the devil,” he opines.

The devil in question here is ATK, a club that was formed fairly recently, just five years ago, and has hardly won over a huge fan base. Many fans like Kundu view it as a clear victory of wealth over heritage.

By having 80 percent control over the Board, ATK will virtually call the shots at Mohun Bagan. More importantly, the question is what will happen to the players and coaching staff?

The ATK unit will obviously favour the players that they have bought and play in the ISL. The players that currently play for Mohun Bagan have their futures in doubt, since they would not be able to afford the salaries of this large number of players – considering the two teams will be merging into one. Many current players and coaching staff are in danger of losing their jobs.

We have mentioned earlier about the change of name, and fans are also currently unsure of the future of their club crest.

WILL IT BE EAST BENGAL NEXT?

The Mohun Bagan- East Bengal rivalry has been traditionally described the greatest derby of Asia. Fans flock in thousands and come from distant districts in West Bengal to Kolkata to witness the derby in Salt Lake Stadium.

Such is the intensity of the rivalry, that separate slots in the stadium has been appointed to the fans of each team, in order to avoid violence. There have been stories of how, after a 5-goal win by East Bengal over Mohun Bagan pushed several Bagan fans to commit suicide.

A father who had just lost his son to a road accident came to see the match in the afternoon, right after the lighting the pyre of his son the same morning. This is the level of emotion and passion that runs through this rivalry.

With Bagan now moving to the ISL, the rivalry seems over, but  East Bengal may soon follow their arch nemesis’ footsteps.

East Bengal and current sponsor Quess will be splitting at the end of May this year but senior club official Debabrata Sarkar says, “Come what may, we will not sacrifice our legacy. Remember, East Bengal is an institution and we have kept the emotions of millions of our supporters in mind. It will be a fight to remain alive and kicking but that’s always been the case for us.”

Sarkar said that Goenka had approached East Bengal as well but the club wanted no less than 50 percent control.

However, in difficult financial times like this it will be hard for the club officials to resist the temptation of the glitz and glamour of the ISL, and the money that comes with it – Rs 40 crore for every franchise to be precise, compared to a meagre Rs 6 crore that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal enjoy.

THE END OF THE I-LEAGUE?

The impact of the ATK-Mohun Bagan merger can be seen in many lights. While it’s a sign of the times where money is the big deciding factor it is also a ploy to kill a successful and popular club championship in the I-League that is traditionally the premier championship in the country at the moment.

The ISL is essentially a closed tournament with no promotion or relegation, and thus not a traditional football league like it is played anywhere around the globe.

Both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will be admitted into the ISL fold from next season. These two 100-year-old-plus teams have been the backbone of Indian football for ages and even in modern history, holds their place for producing one of the fiercest sporting rivalries of all time.

The charm of the I-League will reduce drastically once the Big Two of Indian football joins the ISL competition- a league basically run by the who’s who of India – from Ranbir Kapoor to Sachin Tendulkar.

It remains to be seen how much motivation will be left for the I-League teams because till such time there is a system of gaining promotion to the premier league, the ecosystem is as good as pointless.

AMBANIS HAVE THE LAST LAUGH

ATK’s acquisition of the Mohun Bagan is a triumph for Reliance, the All India Football Federation’s marketing partners. The ISL is a franchise tournament run by Football Sports Development Limited, a subsidiary of Reliance. And for the past couple of years, the ISL has made more money for the AIFF be it through sponsors or TV revenue.

By using ATK to lure away Mohun Bagan into a wholly one-sided tie-up, FSDL has proved its massive influence.

Meanwhile, Mohun Bagan tops the I-League points table as of now, and they will look to end their final season in the tournament on a high by winning the trophy and taking a bow as champions of I-League. On 15th March, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will meet for the final time, and that would be a spectacle to watch.