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East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Indian Football’s Corporate Woes

Jaydeep Basu |
While East Bengal and Mohun Bagan’s refusal to play in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) is another ominous sign of how the two legacy clubs are slowly but surely moving away from their founding ethos, the issue is not just about them. From a common man’s game, football in India is now a privately owned property run by a select group. Traditional power bases -- deriving strength from the fans -- should either be destroyed or bought over.
East Bengal fans protest against Shree Cement deal

The protest march by East Bengal fans on July 21, which turned violent, leading to a lathi-charge by the local police after another set of fans, backing the club officials, clashed with the group. Around 50 people were rounded up after the clash that left half a dozen supporters injured.

On July 21, hundreds of East Bengal supporters took to the streets to protest against the club officials after they refused to sign on the dotted lines for a final agreement with the investors. 

The demonstration turned violent, leading to a lathi-charge by the local police after another set of fans, backing the club officials, clashed with the group. Around 50 people were rounded up after the clash that left half a dozen supporters injured.

The fans, who gathered in front of the East Bengal club tent, were demanding the officials should immediately sign the agreement term-sheet so that the investors, Shree Cement, can pump in enough money and raise a strong SC East Bengal squad for the Indian Super League (ISL).

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In the past 100 years, Kolkata had witnessed many rallies, protest marches, strikes; whether it was in support of the left-democratic forces in Vietnam or Cuba or against some atrocities committed against peasants and workers in the farthest corners of the country. 

But rarely before has a group of young people been spotted marching ahead in central Kolkata demanding that a big corporate house should take over one of the city’s legacy institutions, that too, for ensuring the participation in an upstart competition struggling to have its own identity despite unprecedented official patronage. A reflection of the changing character of the City of Joy, perhaps.

True, the demonstration had another side -- a section of the members were completely frustrated by the inept handling of the club by its elected members. They are being pushed to the brink by the club’s visible lack of success in the past decade. Hence the optimism that the professional set up of a corporate house would bring magical reforms. The achievements of the arch rivals, ATK Mohun Bagan in the last season, has further strengthened the belief.

About a month after the protest march and clash, five weeks to be precise, the Mecca of Indian football got a taste of corporate professionalism in Indian football. ATK Mohun Bagan informed the state association IFA that they were in no position to play the local league, CFL, in which the green and maroon side had been playing without a break since 1914.

On record, ATK MB officials said they skipped CFL in order to concentrate on the AFC Cup campaign. A few days later, a member of the club’s board of directors went a step ahead to hint that the 132-year-old club would have remained the proverbial frog in the well had not ATK come forward to join hands. He said Mohun Bagan would have never dreamt of playing in the AFC Cup semifinals without ATK’s help. 

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ATK Mohun Bagan have, since then, apologized for the director’s unsavoury statement, but many suspect it was only a temporary retreat. The onslaught on Mohun Bagan’s century-old heritage was a well-planned one and would rise its head with unfailing regularity in near future.

Former India winger Sukumar Samajpati, 80, had played for both the Kolkata giants though his best days were spent with East Bengal. Recently, when the club and the investors were involved in a monotonous tug of war over signing the agreement, Samajpati was invited by the club officials to have a look at the proposed agreement and tell the fans about the discrepancies in it.

A top executive with a nationalised bank in his post-football career, Samajpati did visit the club tent once, but refused to go again citing failing health. He sounded absolutely disappointed.

“Both sides have their own follies,” he said. “The two famed clubs in Kolkata are not run professionally these days. Given the current trend, the entry of the corporates with serious money has become inevitable.

“At the same time, the decision not to play the CFL surprises me. It does give a feeling there is a conscious attempt to undermine the history of the club built over several decades. It’s unfortunate.”

Like Samajpati, another former India footballer, Prasanta Banerjee had spent 14 seasons, playing for either of the two clubs. He said: “I am pained that the CFL is being played without the two clubs. It’s a huge blow to the city’s football culture. That Mohun Bagan want to do well in the AFC Cup is a welcome move. But tell me, do all participating clubs in the AFC Cup ignore the leagues in their respective hometowns? Both the clubs have a large number of members on their rolls. Why should they continue to pay the subscriptions if they don’t get an opportunity to watch their clubs play,” Banerjee asked.

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But again, these are arguments pooh-poohed by the two clubs now under corporate control. SC East Bengal have a ready excuse – they have still not managed to raise a decent side because of the tussle between the club and the investors. ATK Mohun Bagan said their Spanish coach Antonio Habas wanted to concentrate on the AFC Cup. So much so, he sent the footballers on leave after the group league matches.

Recently, a group of youngsters have formed a group, “Mohun Bagan Supporters and Members”, demanding removal of ATK from the club’s name. They held a demonstration, followed by a press conference calling upon the club to break the tie-up with ATK. They, perhaps, are encouraged by the fact that their arch rivals’ investors have decided to disassociate themselves after the current season.

While there is no reason to question the intention of this group of fans, they indeed missed the bus last season when the merger of ATK with Mohun Bagan was announced with much fanfare. A carrot and stick approach was used with great success – an opportunity to play in the ISL looked too overwhelming; the logical reasoning was discarded by the majority of the fans and the danger of selling 80 percent of the club’s stake was swept under the rug by the management by painting a rosy picture for the future.

The millions of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal supporters failed to see through the larger issue; from a common man’s game, football in India has been reduced to a privately owned property run by a select group of people. Hence, every platform of the game, whether it is a league or a club, should be privately managed. Traditional power bases -- deriving strength from the fans -- should either be destroyed or bought over.

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If East Bengal officials feel that they have managed to bypass the trend by forcing their investors to leave after the season, then they have failed to see the bigger picture. The system has been changed successfully, through AFC and tthe AIFF, and East Bengal have to fall in line.

Sumit Ghosh, a leading member of the group demanding the demerger of ATK Mohun Bagan said: “We know it is a lopsided contest, an uneven battle against mighty opponents. But we will continue to fight and hope to win one day.”

While there is little doubt on what he said about the unequal fight, his buoyancy raises too many unanswered questions. The clubs had to fight within to keep their flags of legacy and heritage flying when the system was broken down for the benefit of a few. Instead, they chose to succumb miserably at that time.

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