There is a strange feeling in the air at Kolkata Maidan. SC East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan, two stalwarts of Indian football, find themselves on the opposite sides of the spectrum after their debut ISL season. While ATK Mohun Bagan is gearing up for another ISL season, forgetting the disappointment of last year when they failed to get over the final hurdle, SC East Bengal is at loggerheads with their investors Shree Cement regarding the signing of the term sheet that relinquishes East Bengal’s control over their sporting rights and hands it over to Shree Cement. Even after countless discussions between representatives of both sides, East Bengal’s executive committee headed by Mr Debabrata “Nitu” Sarkar is unwilling to sign the term sheet as the club feels that the agreement fails to protect the interests and rights of the existing club members. This disagreement between the club and the investor has put the future of SC East Bengal in jeopardy, and their participation in the Calcutta Football League and ISL hangs in the balance.
Growing up as a football fan in and around the City of Joy, you can’t help but form an allegiance to any of the Big Three, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. With ISL opening its door in 2014, Atletico de Kolkata, later renamed ATK, represented the football-crazy city in the ISL. Still, when the AIFF decided to run both the I-League and ISL parallelly, ATK saw a dip in attendance and interest during the regular season as ardent Bengali football fans chose the old horses over the glitz and glamour of ATK. This decision prompted RPSG to disband their footballing team and merge with Mohun Bagan to form ATK Mohun Bagan and propel the century-old club into the ISL. East Bengal, too followed suit; they found an investor after intervention from the West Bengal state government and found themselves in the ISL as SC East Bengal. And then began an entire season of banter and hatred between two sets of fans that have grown up hating each other, and the ISL found a fresh breath of air.
While the ISL has been around for six years and the franchises had managed to pique the interest of football fans in the country, the league lacked a proper footballing rivalry. While the Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters rivalry gained momentum, you can’t possibly fit the passion of a century-old rivalry into half a decade of the fracas between the Manjapadda and the West Block Blues. With the ISL taking place behind closed doors last season, the celebration of football that is the Kolkata Derby was only realised through the presence of fans on social media and screenings organised across the city. SC East Bengal needs to stay in the ISL so that the league realises the full potential of the Derby and how it can be milked to put Indian football on the global stage. Also, having ATK Mohun Bagan in the league, you need SC East Bengal. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be half as fun; it’s like signing up for a Simon and Garfunkel concert only to see Simon perform. Both these clubs had kept each other relevant for over 100 years, even when there was flickering interest in Indian football. The league needs this rivalry to generate the revenues that it has been struggling too after seven years of existence, as was pointed out by Parth Jindal, owner of Bengaluru FC, in his letter to Nita Ambani. FC Pune City had to shut shop because of such financial strifes. It also prompted the Delhi Dyamons to shift base to Odisha.
While football is about passion, modern-day football is also about marketing and money. India is a developing football nation. It needs funds to strengthen its league structure and have better grassroots and age-based tournaments to develop more talent. With the advent of the ISL and football becoming a serious profession in this country, and more and more young players are choosing football as a career option. The influx of young promising talents into the national side has been a commendable success of the ISL. With now Indian clubs getting direct entry into AFC club competitions, it is important that put up a great show so that Indian football stays relevant on the Asian stage. All these weren’t possible in a day; it took the ISL almost six years to achieve and contribute such success to Indian football, but now it needs to keep it going. The only way it can be achieved is by having a bigger league with more games to play and not by losing out on one of its most promising entities and, along with it, a game that holds the potential to fascinate fans worldwide.
With the fixtures of the Calcutta Football League revealed yesterday, the pressure is on East Bengal to agree with Shree Cement, as the IFA has given them a week to sort out their differences and confirm their participation in the league, which is resuming this season after it was cancelled last year because of Covid. IFA has volunteered to act as a mediator between the two parties so that the conflict can be resolved at its earliest as they feel the participation of East Bengal in the CFL is essential for the game, the league and Indian football. SC East Bengal struggled in the ISL last season as they had very little time to assemble a team because of their late entry into the league. With their issues this season, it looks like they are yet again back to square one as they are yet to formally sign any players because of their dispute with their investors. FSDL and the Reliance Group should also intervene to resolve this issue because of their own interests. With SC East Bengal in the league, it guarantees more eyeballs watching the league. It also ensures more revenue from TV rights and merchandise sales and a continuous social media presence because, with SC East Bengal in the league, the mariners and the red and gold brigade will be at each other’s throats 24×7. The ISL and the CFL need East Bengal as much as the club needs them. It will be in the common interest of Indian football to resolve this disagreement between Shree Cement and East Bengal so that the attention can shift back to football instead of term sheets.
Follow our website for the latest updates on Indian Football.