In 2014, when the first season of the ISL rolled in, an entire nation was enthralled by the beautiful game. India has always been predominantly a cricket playing nation but all of a sudden football was the talk of the town. But even before this nation became fascinated with the game, on the eastern side just above the Bay of Bengal, the state of West Bengal has been engrossed with football for over a century with Kolkata being the epicentre of this obsession. Kolkata along with its sprawling suburbs isn’t a city for everyone just like playing for a Kolkatan outfit isn’t every footballer’s cup of tea. The city is laid back, it’s inhabitants inherently lazy, who can solve any predicament over a cup of tea at a local tea stall. But football energizes Kolkata and its citizens, and while the Kolkata football fan is extremely passionate, he is equally volatile and could be a footballer’s nightmare. You as a footballer in this city could be next to God or even greater than Him one day and you could be public enemy number one the next. While some of India’s footballing greats have struggled to find a foothold in this city during their illustrious career some random nobody has scaled the heights footballing greatness while playing at the Kolkata Maidan.
Kolkata Maidan has predominantly been about the Big 3. Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Each club with over 100 years of history behind them has been the pioneers of Indian football. While over time these 3 have struggled to keep up with the fast-growing and ever-changing footballing scenes in the country, their rich history and their passionate fans have kept these clubs relevant. While Mohammedan has experienced gross mismanagement among the top brass and also a financial crisis, which prompted them to fall behind in the pecking order in Kolkata and Indian football, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have somehow managed to maintain their status as a top footballing club. But with the advent of the ISL and the I-League struggling to keep up with the pomp and show of India’s new top football competition it became evident, that both the Kolkata giants would soon need to be a part of the Indian Super League. While East Bengal had tied up with Quess Corp, with the latter acting as an investor for 3 years, their partnership lasted only for 2 because of ideological differences among the two sets of management, Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, has been struggling to find investors after they spilt with United Breweries. Mohun Bagan did manage to win the I-League during 2014/15 but the way the club has been managed since then, it was heading for disaster. Bust ups at the club’s annual general meeting between warring club officials, the frequent sacking of coaches, recruiting sub-par footballers and non-payment of player salaries, Mohun Bagan seemed to have turned into a mess.
Before the start of the 2019/20 football season, Mohun Bagan elected Mr Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose and his entourage to lead the club forward which was struggling both on and off the field. With the ISL getting the top AFC club competitions slots it was evident that the I-League was going to play second fiddle to the Indian Super League and a club of Mohun Bagan’s stature needed to be part of the elite football competition in the country from next season. And what followed next shocked the entire footballing community. RPSG Group who are majority shareholders of two times champions and Kolkata’s representative in the Indian Super League ATK acquired majority shares of the 130 years old club a decision that shocked both the fan bases.
While there are polarising views about the merger between the two clubs, the reality of the situation is, the merger is happening. Mohun Bagan was in desperate need of the financial backing that RPSG Group will bring but the heritage and 130-year old history that this magnanimous club has is also something that needs to be preserved. After the news of the merger broke, ATK went onto win the ISL and Mohun Bagan went onto win the I-League. Now two champion sides will get merged and feature as one next season, but how they go about to attain this is something that every football fan is intrigued about right now, more so the Mariners.
In Kolkata, football still makes and breaks things. The club emblem and colours are sacred for the fans. People in Kolkata break up relationships, business partnerships over football. Such is the love these fans have, that they won’t eat a delicacy that has Hilsa or Prawns in it depending on the camp you are on. Imagine 130,000 people witnessing a football game in this country, seems like a dream right, well more than 130,000 fans flocked the Salt Lake Stadium in 1997 to watch a Kolkata Derby. 16th August 1980 and 9th December 2012, two dark days in Indian football both happened in Kolkata and every Indian football fan knows how ugly it can get in this city when it comes to football. Son’s who have just performed the last rites of their recently deceased father would still turn up to watch their favourite club to play because a win for their favourite club will make his father happy, who he is sure watching and blessing his team from the heavens, that’s how crazy the Kolkata football fan is. Now to take 2 football clubs in this city and to merge them a form one single entity without hurting the sentiments of the millions who eat, breathe and sleep these clubs is a Herculean task and on 10th of July 2020, when both the ATK and Mohun Bagan officials meet to decide of what comes next, everyone will watch anxiously.
If we look at the pros that Kolkata Maidan gets out of this merger, it is the inject of professionalism. For far too long the giants of Kolkata and Indian football has run on the whims of the people at the top of the management food chain and their century-old ideas. The clubs needed to revamp and modernize and this merger could be the first step on that path. Also, the sheer sense of rivalry that the clubs here share, the progress of one will prompt the others to soon follow the same path, may not be a merger but a different path to playing in the ISL. The facilities and the infrastructure at these clubs have been below par for far too long because of the financial frailties and with the backing of RPSG while situations at Mohun Bagan are going to improve, it also might open a window of opportunity for East Bengal and Mohammedan to attract investors and eventually make their way out of a rut. The grassroots program at these clubs have been doing fine till date but can the programs be improved and can the youth academy of these clubs produce better players, most definitely yes and playing in the ISL would help them to not only improve their talent pool but also add substantially to it. Indian football is moving towards a new direction and its time for the Kolkata bandwagon to join in.
What could be the cons of this merger, well we will only know once the hallowed meeting of 10th July concludes. Millions of emotions are associated with both ATK and Mohun Bagan and both their fans and their values need to protected and respected, but one always cannot attain success being emotional and the downfall of the Kolkata footballing giants is an acute example of that. While emotions, fans, heritage and history needs to be upheld but not at the expense of sacrificing professionalism which will eventually lead to progress.
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