Mohun Bagan-ATK merger: Will the end of an era kick off a new beginning?

Mohun Bagan and ATK announced a merger in January to play in ISL. Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

In the early 2000s when Mohun Bagan was struggling to raise funds to sign Brazilian footballer Jose Ramirez Barreto, a fanatic fan mortgaged his house to arrange the money.

For over a century the grand-old club Mohun Bagan Athletic Club — commonly popular as just Mohun Bagan — had been essentially run as a public institution dependent on the grace of its members and fans. So is true of its arch rival, the East Bengal, the Mohammedan Sporting Club and other football organisations of the city.

They withered many a crisis as fans and members backed them even when they hit a bad patch. In sharp contrast, many renowned Indian clubs owned by corporate houses waned into oblivion.

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The Jagatjit Cotton and Textile Football Club, popularly JCT FC, Mafatlal Club, Tata Sports Club and Mahindra United Football Club are some of the big names that faded away just because the companies that backed them did not have the passion of a die-hard fan who is even willing to risk a roof over his head just to ensure his favourite club gets a prized catch.

This chequered history is weighing on the minds of Mohun Bagan fans ever since Indian football history turned a new leaf in January with the iconic 131-year-old club merging with the city’s new football entity — the ATK Football Club — in what is billed as one of the biggest developments in the country’s soccer arena. The merger, however, became official earlier this month.

New beginning of an old love affair

As per the merger agreement, Sanjiv Goenka’s RPSG Group, which owns and runs ATK FC, has 80 per cent stake in the newly formed ATK Mohun Bagan Private Limited. Mohun Bagan owns the remaining 20 per cent shares. BCCI president Sourav Ganguly is also a co-owner of ATK Mohun Bagan Private Limited by virtue of being a stakeholder of ATK.

The Mohun Bagan Athletic Club was founded in 1889. The prefixing of ATK with the name of the club is seen as a compromise to its rich history. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mohun Bagan Athletic Club was founded in 1889. The prefixing of ATK with the name of the club is seen as a compromise to its rich history. “It’s a pure business with zero value to the emotions of both Mohun Bagan and ATK fans,” said Arindam Hazra, a Mohun Bagan fan. His contention was echoed by octogenarian Asit Manna, a former Railway employee, who claimed to have never missed a “boro (big) match”– a local parlance for a Mohun Bagan and East Bengal clash in the Calcutta Football League (now rechristened Officer’s Choice Blue Calcutta Premier League) since early 1960s when footballers Chuni Goswami, Jarnail Singh, Mariappa Kempaiah, Isaiah Arumaiynayagam among others donned the club’s green and maroon jersey.

“Look at the ATK’s history. It was established in 2014 as Atlético de Kolkata with Spanish football club Atletico Madrid as a co-owner. But the partnership lasted only three seasons, because it was purely a business deal with no emotional quotient,” Manna pointed out, sounding skeptical about Mohun Bagan’s new deal.

Fortunately, despite the apparent disquiet, fans this time did not oppose the takeover of the club the way they did in 1998 when it had tied up with Vijay Mallya’s UB Group to form a company with a 50-50 shareholding.

The arrangement obviously did not last long. Just two years into their association, UB Group had slashed the team budget by more than Rs 1 crore. That was the beginning of a messy divorce that even led to a legal battle with Mohun Bagan dragging the UB Group to court in 2015 for not releasing a single rupee of the promised sponsorship money. A year later, the UB group finally pulled out of the joint venture giving up its stake.

Since then, the club has been grappling with constant financial crunch. The club affairs had been run by its current president Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose, who reportedly spent Rs 6 crore a year just to run the football team without any return.

What it means for Mohun Bagan

The money brought in by the RPSG Group will definitely help the club tide over its financial crisis. But the question remains, will Goenka have the emotional attachment with the club to go on funding it like Bose had been doing without any return?

“Personally, it’s an emotional reunion for me as my late father RP Goenka was a member of Mohun Bagan,” said Sanjiv Goenka, chairman of the RPSG Group, after the merger in a bid to allay the apprehension of fans about his long-term commitment towards the club.

But Bose encapsulated the deal more precisely noting: “As much as we want the romance of the maroon and green jersey and its 130-year-old tradition to continue, there comes a time when romance almost invariably requires a partner named practicality. To usher in a new era of football, you need bigger investments and a corporate force to take it forward. This is undoubtedly harsh and the bigger truth.”

Only time will tell if the deal will indeed mark the beginning of a new era in Indian football. As of now it has paved the way for the current I-league champion to make the foray into the glitzy and cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL), essentially a franchise tournament run by Football Sports Development Limited, a subsidiary of the Reliance.

So far, the ISL franchises have not succeeded in infusing adrenaline to Indian football, dubbed as a sleeping giant by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter. There is no visible change in terms of infrastructure or performance. Indian football team’s FIFA ranking remains staggered at 108th spot.

Therefore, it will be optimism at its finest to hope that the deal would be a game changer in Indian football. More so when the past rendezvous between Indian corporate houses and the football clubs were not very fruitful and encouraging.

As for protecting Mohun Bagan’s legacy, it’s a mixed bag.

A Lagaan moment

The prefixing of ATK with the name of the historic club is seen as a compromise to its rich history that traces back to the Indian freedom struggle.

The Mohun Bagan AC team that won the 1911 IFA shield against East Yorkshire regiment. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The club’s epoch-making victory against British Army’s East Yorkshire Regiment in the final of the Indian Football Association Shield in 1911 is one of the most glorious moments in the country’s fight against imperialism. It was a real-life Lagaan moment — when national pride was stirred by a sporting victory.

After the match, a group of Mohun Bagan fans pumped up by their renewed patriotic zeal pointing at the Union Jack atop the Fort William had asked, “When will that come down? ” Someone replied, “When Mohun Bagan will win the IFA Shield again.”

In a bizarre coincidence, Mohun Bagan won the next IFA shield title in 1947, the year Indian attained its independence.

Acknowledging the inspiring role the win played in the country’s freedom struggle, on the occasion of the club’s centenary celebration in 1989, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi conferred it the title of ‘the national club of India’.

Coming back to the present, former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia though hailed the merger expressed his disappointment over diluting Mohun Bagan’s legacy by changing the name of the club to ATK Mohun Bagan.

“Why would you want to have it’s name ATK-Mohun Bagan? That does not go well. That branding has to be done properly. The deal was all about buying the identity and history. With that history, you will have millions of fans across the world. That you will have to keep in mind,” Bhutia had told the PTI.

Fortunately, the new owners retained the club’s green and maroon jersey and its ubiquitous boatman logo, signalling their intention of not tampering with tradition much.

Given the club’s current financial condition, it could not have asked for more. As for the disgruntled fans, a few trophies will be enough to cheer them up even as Mohun Bagan’s rich history gets a quiet burial.?

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