A demotion to the second division, a backbreaking struggle to land a telecast partner, a never-ending battle to allure sponsors – the I-League has faced quite a few challenges this past year, ever since the AIFF recognised the Indian Super League as India’s premier division of league football. But nothing has been as hard-hitting to thousands of football fans in the Mecca of Indian football than the news of Mohun Bagan opting to sell eighty percent of its stakes to the RPG Group which runs the ATK franchise in the Indian Super League, paving the path towards the first-ever merger of an I-League and ISL club.
The anticipation for the traditional ‘Boro’ derby with East Bengal this coming Sunday has given way for jitters for the Mohun Bagan supporters as they remain divided on whether this move to secure the financial future of their club will lead to a dilution of their century-old identity.
To understand the magnitude of this decision, one needs to realise the cultural significance of the beautiful game in the city of Kolkata. It isn’t merely a mode of recreation or an avenue of entertainment for majority of Bengalis, but a way of life – an integral part of conversation during the morning “adda” over a cup of tea and uninhibited expression of opinion through the schism of the football club a Bengali supports. Walk through the Maidan on an early weekend morning and conversations filter out about tactics the likes of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal may deploy in their latest outing – rival supporters at loggerheads regarding the supremacy of their favourite club often finding common grounds in their criticism of the dismal refereeing which often plagues Indian football in some of its biggest matches.
In its six seasons in the Indian Super League, two-time champions ATK have barely managed to scratch the surface of the football fervour which finds a home in the heart of Bengalis, the decision to invest in Mohun Bagan will surely help the Antonio Habas-managed side in that respect. The Mariners shall bring with them legions of hardcore supporters when the rechristened ATK-Mohun Bagan take the field in the 2020-21 edition of the Indian Super League.
Since their last I-League triumph in 2015-16 season, Mohun Bagan has struggled to make ends meet financially as well as remain relevant from a sporting perspective. Losing McDowell’s, their primary sponsor, certainly didn’t help with Swapan Bose forced to invest large sums of his own money to keep the club running – not sustainable in the long run by any means. The managerial revolving door didn’t contribute to Mohun Bagan’s cause as fans became increasingly disillusioned while the club failed to attract quality players. With the Indian Super League clubs remaining immune to a promotion-relegation system in the recent future while only two I-League clubs being allowed to join the ISL from next season onwards, avenues of progress were quickly dwindling for the Mariners hierarchy.
The merger will help relieve their financial burden, but it remains to be seen how much of their identity and age-old charm they manage to retain through this harrowing process – whether the iconic ‘Green-and-Maroon’ jersey is adopted by the ATK-Mohun Bagan, if any of the contemporary Mohun Bagan players find a foothold in the newly assembled squad – a lot of questions seemed to have risen.
Certain sections of Mohun Bagan supporters have welcomed this business decision with heartfelt gratitude – the glamour which is associated with the ISL making them hopeful about their club’s long-term future. In an era when Indian football is adapting to mammoth changes, the urge to stay relevant certainly beats any nostalgia of the glorious days of past. Money speaks in modern sporting society and simply selling out stadiums without the backing of sponsors can no longer fetch quality players necessary to uphold the standard of a club or a league. Swapan Bose's choice to enter into a business relationship with the RPG Group is certainly pragmatic, but what about legacy?
Naysayers have circled since the inception of the Indian Super League, doling out warnings about how the rich new boys in town will eventually wipe out from existence the regional club’s catering to their footballing roots. I-League's demotion to a secondary status and this merger where Mohun Bagan hand over a controlling stake to an ISL club seems to point in that very direction – unless the I-League clubs can conjure up sponsors by some magical intervention, they will be eventually obliterated or forced into a take-over for survival, because otherwise it is practically impossible for them to compete with clubs whose investments are twenty-times the revenue of theirs.
While this merger may prove to be beneficial for the grassroots development of football in the City of Joy in the years to come, it is still calamitous for the oldest association football club in Asia to bow its head to the changing times – a club which was established in 1889 as a platform of expression for the influential Bengalis through the medium of football has been forced to swallow a bitter pill for survival that will invariably hand the reigns over to the present-day influential cash-rich entities of Indian football.
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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2020 13:10:55 IST