Antonio Habas, who led ATK to the Indian Super League (ISL) title this season, will manage ATK Mohun Bagan, and not Kibu Vicuna (right), Bagan’s championship winning head coach.
Around noon on March 24, 1997, TK Chathunni left his hotel room in Kolkata to visit a friend, who was with him during his Indian Army days. At that time, he had no idea about what was in store for him later in the evening.
Now, exactly 23 years later, the veteran Kerala born coach still remembers the chain of events vividly. “I was in high spirits. Less than 48 hours ago, Mohun Bagan had won their maiden National Football League (now I-League) title under my coaching. Suddenly I was the toast of the town.”
“After a sumptuous lunch at my friend’s house, I received a call from a journalist. He advised me to return to my hotel immediately because Mohun Bagan had sacked me,” says Chathunni.
“I was shocked. Definitely. But could do little. Two days later, I picked up my bags and returned to Kerala. My honeymoon with the green and maroon brigade had come to an end abruptly,” he concludes.
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Now, consider this. On March 10, 2020, Mohun Bagan’s five-year wait to win their second I-League title came to an end. In the most convincing manner, with four more rounds yet to be played, under Spanish coach Kibu Vicuna Mohun Bagan were runaway winners.
On March 12, 2020, Mohun Bagan officials held a press conference with Vicuna the sole speaker. He was allowed to hog all the limelight for the spectacular triumph.
It was an emotional moment for the fans. This was their last I-League campaign. The 130-year-old institution would soon merge with ATK, which surfaced overnight in Indian football with seven other Indian Super League (ISL) franchises six seasons ago.
On March 14, 2020, ATK bagged the ISL play-off title in a Coronavirus scared closed-door match in Goa. Here too, a Spaniard, Antonio Habas, was the architect of the victory. Next day, ATK boss Sanjiv Goenka announced in Kolkata that Habas would continue as the head coach of the merged outfit next season.
“Yes (he will be the coach)... I think there’s something in the stars. If we work together, we succeed together,” Goenka said as ATK celebrated their triumph.
In one stroke, Vicuna, the much celebrated champion coach, was confined to history. Earlier, it was understood that representatives of ATK and Mohun Bagan will constitute a board to arrive at all major decisions, especially about the formation of the squad for the next season.
Perfect planning, but not exactly perfect execution. Goenka wasn’t too diplomatic in his utterances. He didn’t need to be. As simple as that. After all, he owns 80 percent of the new company with Mohun Bagan. He also announced names of some footballers ATK were set to recruit.
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The message is loud and clear. For anyone to understand it. With their much-touted history, legacy and fan base, Mohun Bagan can live happily ever after. As long as they know who is the new boss in the new home.
Mohun Bagan have nothing to complain about. They aspired to play in the ISL and got what they wanted. They have to grin and bear it.
Mohun Bagan finance secretary Debashish Dutta felt it was a complete non-story. “Vicuna had a one-year contract with us. Now the season is over, he is leaving. There is absolutely no controversy. And the decision on Habas was taken after consulting all officials,” claims Dutta.
Well, not everyone is ready to accept Dutta’s words on face value. Some feel Mohun Bagan have been paid back in the same coin. After all, the oldest club in Asia is infamous for booting out successful coaches.
“Do you remember what happened to me after the 2001-02 season was over,” asked Subrata Bhattacharya. He donned Mohun Bagan colours for a record 17 years and later became the club coach.
“Mohun Bagan won the NFL title on April 15, 2002 after defeating Churchill Brothers by a goal on the concluding day of the league at Goa. On April 16, I received a letter from the club. It said my services were no longer required. The coach hardly commands respect in Mohun Bagan club,” says Bhattacharya.
The former stopper-back is not far from the truth. Mohun Bagan history is full of horror stories on coaches. Especially under the current set of officials, who took over the reins in the 90s.
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Once famous coach Amal Dutta was called to a hotel near the Kolkata airport only to be told he should not bother to join the practice session next day.
On another occasion, Syed Nayeemuddin was sacked unceremoniously in a moving car and was dropped midway through. No matter Nayeemuddin is Indian football’s only recipient of both Arjuna and Dronacharya awards.
Says Bhattacharya: “It had happened before. It will happen again. That’s the practice in Kolkata football. Always. Coaches in Kolkata are chosen by non-technical people. It depends on their whims and fancies.”
The game plan is clear. Whosoever holds power will call the shots. In this case, the 80 per cent stakeholders will have more say than those who are having 20 per cent. Money over merit, simple economics. Vicuna should be told to take a walk.
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“The writing on the wall is clear. Mohun Bagan have lost their identity,” said an I-League club official, who doesn’t want to be named.
“They raised a false flag of rebellion last season as the self-appointed leaders of I-League outfits. In doing so, they were the first club to change the floor and desert others. I suspect they had no money to run the club this season. So, they had to compromise,” he said bitterly.
It is hard to know what exactly transpired behind closed doors on the merger issue. But Mohun Bagan will no longer remain the same iconic club. Their corporate entity will outshine the legends of bare-footed local boys taming the villainous might of the British Army, very soon.
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