Lala Dwarka Das Sehgal was a successful businessman, who never played football at a decent level in his younger days. Yet, to say he was Punjab football’s first post independence superstar won’t be an exaggeration.
The state’s football structure was almost non existent when Sehgal decided to form and finance the Leaders Club, Jalandhar in 1960. It opened the floodgates of Punjab football. Soon after, the club began producing top grade footballers including the likes of Inder Singh, Sri Kishen, Ravi Kumar, KK Bakshi etc. Punjab football never had to look back thereafter.
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Sehgal was not the only one to don the role of a pioneer in Indian football. Shiv Kumar Lal in Hyderabad City Police, MK Joseph in Kerala Police, NS Nair in Mafatlal, Mumbai – were central characters behind the success of their respective institutional teams.
On July 10, 2020, the head of RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, Sanjiv Goenka joined this long list of protagonists of Indian football when he officially emerged as the principal owner of ATK Mohun Bagan FC after the first board meeting of the new entity. Having merged with ATK, the 1889 established Mohun Bagan have ceased to be a public club and will largely be owned by an individual.
Mohun Bagan’s two most powerful officials – Srinjoy Bose and Debashis Dutta – are now directors of ATK Mohun Bagan FC. They have called the present arrangement the “new avatar” of Bagan. Given Goenka’s experience and his spectacular success as the ATK boss in the last six seasons of ISL, things certainly look bright for the joint venture, which will retain the historic green and maroon jersey and logo of the legacy club.
Everything looks hunky dory at the moment. To try and predict what is there in the future will mean dealing with several hypotheticals. But then a few questions still remain.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have never been owned by an individual in their history. This fact has been their biggest strength. Over the years, both clubs weathered many storms and survived honourably because they were public institutions. In times of crisis, help came from unexpected quarters – they were rarely dependent on an individual's grace.
On the other hand, some great football teams in India have faded away over the years, simply because the baton couldn’t be handed over to the next person in line. To be precise, no suitable hand could be found in most cases to keep the show going.
The great Hyderabad City Police team of the 1950s became an ordinary outfit by the mid 60s after Shiv Kumar Lal, the IG of the state police force retired from service. He was the key man behind recruiting the best footballers from the state and getting them jobs in the force. His successors were not keen on following similar lines.
Hyderabad City Police were not the only team to suffer this fate. Leaders Club disintegrated after Lala Dwarka Das Sehgal lost interest in football. Mafatlal’s team was disbanded once the bosses decided to not run it. JCT, Mahindra United, all suffered similar fates.
There is nothing right now to suggest Mohun Bagan will go the same way. It is unlikely because the club’s roots run deep in Kolkata society. Still, an arrangement to better protect the club’s century old image of being closer to people and the fans needs to be made. There is no doubt Mohun Bagan are in competent hands, but the present chaos enveloping their arch rivals, East Bengal, should always be paid heed to.
True, those days when money raised through the public was enough to run a club successfully are long gone. Post 2014 Indian football has undergone a complete change. There could be arguments over the standard of the game, but not about the financing of it. The influx of money has brought a noticeable change, however cosmetic it may be.
It has created another problem – people with money but without passion for football have made their way into the corridors of power. Some of them occupy important positions. Their contempt for history and legacy is now well known; possibly to cover up for their own apparent feeling of rootlessness.
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Luckily, Mohun Bagan’s new principal owner has clearly steered himself out of it. In an interview immediately after the first board meeting, he said: “That is part of the legacy, part of the passion. It is a part of the sentiment of the Mohun Bagan fans towards the Mohun Bagan club. And, there is no getting away from that.
“To each fan, all I can say is that you are important, your emotions are important, and above all, your blessings are important. I am sensitive to each one of this and I will try my best to live up to your expectations.”
On Mohun Bagan’s part, Dutta said something that will do equally well to calm the nerves of the fans. He said: “the board meeting was no battleground to retain the green and maroon jersey and the club logo. We are one club, we sat down to decide on issues. That’s the way things are done.”
Some very welcome statements indeed from both sides, though things, as they always do, will unfold slowly as the season progresses. Any merger is painful, especially for the weaker side. There is no reason to believe this would be a painless exercise.
Issues would definitely emerge when the ball starts rolling on the pitch, finally. It’s about finalising the squad, finding the winning combination, raising the support staff, dealing with the national body and so on. No issue in professional football is easy to tackle these days. It would be interesting to watch how the latest entity in Indian football manages to overcome the tricky issues it is expected to face.
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