East Bengal & Mohun Bagan have always been an emotion for all the football lovers who have grown up in West Bengal. Both the clubs along with the likes of JCT, Dempo, Churchill Brothers, Salgaocar etc have carried Indian Football on their shoulders for more than hundred years; which is a widely accepted fact. However standing on a pandemic gripped panic-stricken condition in 2020, most of those legendary club have lost their sheen. Salgaocar hardly resembles a shadow of it’s glorious past while Dempo is working on their academy to revive their legacy. Churchill Brothers has also loosened up on their domination in Indian Football.
With the advent of Hero Indian Super League, even East Bengal & Mohun Bagan have stood the test of time over the relevance of their existence. But, it is quiet correct to state that, even though both the clubs are not a part of the top division of Indian Football, they have gained the most attention, even in the phase of such a dangerous pandemic. While Mohun Bagan has tied up with Sanjiv Goenka owned ISL franchise ATK, East Bengal are frantic in their search for a sponsor after Quess ended all ties with the club few days back, opting the “Force Majeure” clause. A part of this frantic search for an investor also indicates East Bengal’s objective to join their arch rivals in the top division of Indian Football.
However things certainly haven’t gone the way East Bengal had hoped for. The players along with their coach Mario Rivera has been at loggerhead with the ex-investor Quess over their premature contract termination . East Bengal FC officials, are also reportedly concerned with the current situation and allegedly plans to overhaul the whole club in terms of officials as well as the players. East Bengal has been the most active club in this lockdown period; acquiring the services of Balwant Singh, Lalramchullova, Gurtej Singh, Bikramjit Singh amongst others. Keeping in mind such development, it’s pretty evident that either East Bengal wants to compete in ISL or wants to have one of the strongest teams in I League even if they fail to get into the cash-strapped league.
But in between such uproars, it’s a quite astonishing fact that both the century-old legendary clubs is moving away from their traditional proceedings of operations and welcoming privatisation of Indian Football, ushering in the hope of a new, beautiful dawn. Fan reactions has been polarised from both the ends as East Bengal fans would like to say “Ora nijeder beche dilo (They have sold themselves)” while Mohun Bagan fans have quite a point at their hands that “2 bochhor aagei nijeder Quess er kachhe beche diyechhe lotara (East Bengal have sold themselves two years back only)”. Amongst every other thing, supporters of both the clubs have never ever shied away from voicing their concerns on the state of affairs of the way the club has been handled. There’s a definite anguish voiced in most of the East Bengal supporters when they laments the absence of I League in their otherwise illustrious trophy room.
“We have failed as a club and the club officials must take responsibility for not winning a single I-League for the last 17/18 years. What is Nitu da (Debabrata Sarkar) doing? He is giving us hope year after year, but all in vain!” says an angry East Bengal fan Soumik. Soumik, just like every other East Bengal supporter wants an I League trophy in their cabinet but at the same time wants his club to get into ISL and renew the age-old rivalry with Mohun Bagan. It’s quite noteworthy to reminiscent the fact that East Bengal had walked a similar path 2 years back when they sold 70% of the shares to Quess Corp a rather unknown entity in the footballing circuit, back then. Not only did East Bengal sell the shares for it’s football club, the deal included cricket and all the other sports as well. However those 2 years haven’t been a cakewalk for the Kolkata Giants. The primary vision for East Bengal to rope in Quess as their investor was similar to that of Mohun Bagan, who tied the knot with ATK—-To play in ISL. But to their utter dismay Quess had rebuked the 15 crore franchise fee that is required to get an entry into the top league and rather went into the wrong side of the book by inviting feud with Football Sports Development Limited. Just a year back Quess had formed an united liaison with all the I League teams against playing in the Hero Super Cup and needless to say it had infuriated several East Bengal officials while it had a severe impact on their relation with the FSDL officials.
With Quess leaving the red and gold brigade prematurely, it’s quite a conundrum for the club whose supporters would never want to see them competing in a rung below the league, in which their arch rival is all set to take part. While the supporter banter will go on regarding shareholding concerns, corporate takeover is not at all a new fiction in this part of the world. It was way back in 1998, when Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries (UB) decided to sponsor both the Calcutta giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in a fifty-fifty shareholding policy. How could the arch rivals have a common sponsor, the supporters lost their cool. Debates were rife tha,t traditional rivalry was being sacrificed at the alter of commercialisation. Several years down the line, that view has changed. Initially East Bengal made the best use of commercial assistance from the liquor giant while Mohun Bagan suffered due to faction politics within the club. In 2014 when Mohun Bagan was languishing without a sponsor Swapan Sadhan Basu had to dive deep into his pockets to keep up with the change of time.
6 years down the line East Bengal finds themself in a similar situation. “Just like Mohun Bagan had to suffer during that time, we also have to find our way back in such times. It’s not that we are not doing well; it’s just that it’s a test of the time” said a rampant Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta, AGS of East Bengal FC in a facebook live event. In that same event Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta blasted ISL as the “Masala League” which in his opinion, is not helping Indian Football at the moment. “I can’t say with confidence that ISL will bring us results”. However Debasish Dutta, Financial Secy of Mohun Bagan was in no hurry to point it out that the grapes are sour as even East Bengal are trying their best to get into the league. “It seems like grapes are sour. On one hand you are calling it a masala league while your club officials are requesting AIFF almost every day to get into ISL. “
While Dasgupta might prefer to call it a masala league there’s no denying fact that FSDL has been investing an unforeseen amount of money into the system in order to develop professionalism of the game in this part of the world. “To start with, FSDL is investing a huge amount of money in Indian Football. Not only are they running the ISL, money that they give to AIFF helps us to organise our tournaments and development programme including I League. So are they committing a sin? Aren’t they contributing to the development of Indian Football?” AIFF vice president Subrata Dutta begged to differ. It’s a widely known fact that ISL clubs have an approximate of 40 crores of budget every year. Apart from that around 100 crores are spent on every year on organising the league. This makes the league a 500-crore industry and it has been possible only under the regime of FSDL who are investing such amount of money, inspite of the apprehensions that they might be light years away from reaching the break-even point. Years after Jagmohan Dalmiya had revolutionised BCCI, this can potentially be a similar transformation for AIFF.
However no footballing development in this country has been devoid of the Kolkata giants, in it’s helm. “I clearly remember FIFA President and AFC contingent telling that modernisation is needed but not without the mixture of heritage and legacies of clubs like East Bengal & Mohun Bagan, when it comes to Indian Football” says Dulal Dey, an eminent sports journalist. And the same notion might have been resurfaced by the cash-strapped FSDL when they walked an extra mile to play a major role in the path breaking tie up of Mohun Bagan with ATK. FSDL might as well have realised, that they would need the millions of blessings and the fan following that these two Kolkata giants can boast about.
“Even ISL has understood the importance of having East Bengal & Mohun Bagan in Indian Football. They initially thought ISL can happen without East Bengal & Mohun Bagan. It was one year back when they understood that, it’s not the case. That’s when we had a meeting with AFC representative in presence of FIFA representatives and FSDL officials in Malaysia and the doors were opened for us to get into ISL and helped us getting the deal with ATK” – Debasish Dutta validates. Even though Mohun Bagan might have a prefix in its name but millions of their fans will always exclaim “Joy Mohun Bagan” instead of their new found name. And that’s how it has been since the ages. McDowell, UB everyone has come and gone but Mohun Bagan has stayed as a pure form of emotion in the hearts of people.
It’s not at all any different for East Bengal who are reportedly in talks with P&G, Red Chillies Entertainment amongst other entities as sponsors. Even though Debabrata Sarkar has gone on record, saying that East Bengal would never accept a 20-80 shareholding; one might wonder what would that extra 10% mean to him when he already had sold 70% to Quess. Quess had come into the scene just before the cenetary celebration of East Bengal and left on it’s 100th year. With huge amount of merchandise revenue generation and an explicit corner in the minds of the people; Quess has more or less got something out of nothing and have left. Cases will be similar to this with East Bengal FC if they can’t recreate the magic they’ve had during the realm of Vijay Mallaya’s Kingfisher. And in this era of privatisation, if the club officials can’t make the best use of the investor coming in, similar devastation will be awaiting in the future. However such is the charisma of the Kolkata Giant that, not only FSDL, even State Government has come forward to help the red and gold brigade in their pursuit of a proper investor to get into ISL.
Regardless whether it happens this upcoming season or not, East Bengal & Mohun Bagan both will compete at their prime again, in the top division of Indian football, with some different investor or prefix in their name. But the emotion that goes within these two club might never be etched out of the history as their rivalry has always secured the a prestigious place besides Liverpool-Man United or Real Madrid-FC Barcelona or Boca Juniors-River Plate. Skepticism notwithstanding East Bengal and Mohun Bagan together can take India to the epitome of the success in this era of FSDL; just that it needs to be seen when and how!