Mohun Bagan joined hands with Indian Super League outfits ATK earlier this year, with the former giving out 80% of its shares to the club, which is also based out of Kolkata. The 131-year old club is going to jointly feature in the top tier league of Indian football from the next season.
Millions of heartbeats stood still for a moment in Kolkata for a while – are they ever going to flaunt with the green and maroon jersey from the next season? Never in their worst nightmares had Mohun Bagan supporters imagined that their beloved club would be at the mercy of the five-year-old establishment which had a negligible foothold from the same roots. The immediate repercussions - headlines in huge font, criticism from all corners of the country, fans going berserk and rivals taking a sly dig - were seen in the immediate aftermath of the merger announcement. But, was it a blessing in disguise or a case of sold legacy? Well, I can name more than five clubs in Europe who have welcomed financial support during dire straits, why all the fuss?
Mohun Bagan is not just a team, it’s an institution which has served Indian football for more than 130 years and a merger with ISL giants ATK (formerly Atletico de Kolkata) cannot surely bring an abrupt end to the legacy. 80% of the shares does give the latter the privilege to call the shots but the question arises whether the amalgamation would hamper the end product. It was 40 years since Manchester City had won the English title when Sheikh Mansour took the responsibility of the club’s fate. 11 years down the line, they are one of the powerhouses of European football with four domestic titles in the past decade.
It was impossible for Mohun Bagan to remain in the shadow of the glamorous ISL, the transition was inevitable, even though it was not smooth. But, who cares, the club has always been through the road not taken, they have always set the benchmark. From braving the mighty British with bare feet to becoming the member of the club of pioneers, Bagan has faced various shades. A fellow citizen lending a hand of support when a shipwreck was on the cards due to financial crisis – everyone would have cashed in on the opportunity. This was more of adapting to change and moving out of a taboo. As we speak, Mohun Bagan has claimed its fifth I-League title (joint record holder along with Dempo SC), which is, unfortunately, the second-tier league in the country right now.
This is not the first instance where Mohun Bagan have had to come out of its comfort zone and accept reality. The practice of recruiting foreign players was seen as a need for success during the early 1990s when Bagan was stubborn enough to stick to local talent – one of the main ideologies on which the club was formed on August 15, 1889, exactly 58 years before India’s day of Independence. With the changing landscape in Indian football, the Kolkata based club finally gave in; Nigerian Chima Okerie signing as their first-ever overseas player. The proposition to rope in a liquor company as their sponsor was initially revoked by the club which was run by aristocratic Bengalis, but McDowells eventually made their entry into the Maidan, which was the start of a fruitful partnership, helping both parties, until the 2010s, when they parted ways.
Cut to the present day, the Indian Super League has taken the centre stage; professionalism has been injected into the Indian football system to the core. Signing players from the top footballing nations in the world, which was a farfetched imagination a decade ago, has now become a regular affair. Yes, for the first time, the ‘sleeping giants of world football’ has awakened from slumber and has reached deep into its pockets for the greater good. We have transformed from an ignorant nation which only cared about European football to a nation which has given recognition to the existence of the sport in the country. Sounds like a fairy-tale with a script half-written, doesn’t it?
Indian football for the first time in its recent past has been lit with a new ray of hope. But, can we shun the veterans of the trade which has been shouldering the burden for decades. Whether you like it or not, Mohun Bagan playing East Bengal is still the biggest fixture in this part of the world – abandoning it is a 'big' decision. Yes, the two clubs were ambitious about their independence that they blindly followed short term pleasures than visualising the long term ones. But, it’s time to move on. Well, Mohun Bagan has certainly taken the first step, and their neighbours might reciprocate in a similar manner.
Mohun Bagan could have easily got financial support and avoided an existential dilemma, after all, it is the most celebrated football club in India. It may be harsh but the truth is that the management was rather lazy, incompetent and stubborn enough to just sit back and enjoy independence knowing they were on the wrong side of the "David and Goliath" face-off. Even though they are one of the main antagonists of this flick, their realisation was perfectly timed. Just when the empire was about to perish and it was too late for self-rescue, the board of members took the easy option – passed on the baton to the stronger one, keeping its existence, but rather insignificantly. The action had two positive consequences – the club got a lifeline and the management kept its image visible, even though it was stained.
There are still hundreds of questions to be answered – the name of the new club, the crest, home and away jerseys and so on. It is unlikely that the owners of ATK would make such a big investment and lose out on a fan following which has lasted for 131 years. Yet, the execution would be rather interesting and keeping both parties happy will take several brain-storming sessions. But, one thing is for sure – The Mariners will sail along, even if they are stuck in the deadliest of waters.