THE PROSPECT of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal losing their home turf to Atletico Kolkata — if the two clubs join the Indian Super League (ISL) — has drawn two heavyweight political players to the football field. For more than a century, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have played their matches on the maidans of Kolkata and its outskirts. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has urged the two giants to join the ISL, an IPL-style tournament conducted by IMG-Reliance. However, in the event of them joining ISL, Bagan and East Bengal will have to leave Kolkata.
Not surprisingly, the two clubs have not acceded to this demand, triggering outrage in the state’s football circles with the ruling TMC and opposition BJP joining the emotive issue. NCP leader Praful Patel tried to work out a compromise but, eventually, the AIFF was forced to delay its plans to make ISL the country’s premier league following the political intervention. Since both the I-League and ISL will be held simultaneously, both Bagan and East Bengal will have another year in the I-League but their future remains uncertain. Bagan’s members will be closing ranks to form a strategy that will help them hold on their home turf.
“We have called an executive body meeting on June 30 to discuss our future course of action. We intend to discuss everything, including the overture made by the BJP, with a proposal to have a meeting with the Union Sports Minister. We also have the full support and cooperation of our Chief Minister (Mamata Banerjee),” Mohun Bagan general secretary Anjan Mitra told The Indian Express.
According to Indian Football Association (IFA) West Bengal secretary Utpal Ganguli, Banerjee has told the two clubs “not to compromise on their dignity”. This was followed by BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya writing to the two clubs, offering help and suggesting that the Union Sports Ministry could help solve the quagmire. “We informed the AIFF during our meeting a fortnight ago with its secretary that we must play our home matches in Kolkata. We are not corporate entities and should be treated differently, considering our huge legacy and contribution to Indian football,” Mitra said.
The entry of the two Kolkata teams in the ISL would make it the premier domestic league while relegating I-League to second division. After initial hesitation, the two clubs had agreed to the idea, with East Bengal even picking up the bid documents for a new team. But then, two conditions were imposed on them: paying a franchise fee of approximately Rs 15 crore each and playing their home matches outside Kolkata.
According to ISL’s five-year venue exclusivity clause, only one team is allowed from a city, and Kolkata already has two-time ISL champion Atletico de Kolkata as its representative. However, Kolkata football has always been about Bagan and East Bengal as both clubs enjoy a massive and dedicated fan base. They have their own stadiums as well, although on lease from the Army. In case the two Kolkata giants do join ISL, the three-season-old league would get two precious value-additions — legacy and legions of fans. Bagan and East Bengal members feel that ISL needs the clubs more and this explains their aversion to the idea of paying the Rs 15-crore fee. The AIFF, meanwhile, has repeatedly countered the clubs by pointing to their long struggle to rope of sponsors despite the mass following.
According to ISL norms, to incorporate the Big Two, Atletico Kolkata’s approval would be necessary. The Atletico Kolkata management has never publicly expressed its reservations over Bagan and East Bengal becoming part of the ISL from Kolkata. But there’s a common perception that the arrival of the Kolkata giants would make the corporate franchise peripheral, popularity wise. Asked about his letter to Bagan and East Bengal, BJP’s Vijayvargiya told The Indian Express: “From media reports, we came to know that the two clubs were being ignored and that’s why we wrote to them asking if they needed help. We got a reply thanking us. These are two important clubs in Kolkata. We are trying to mediate and see whether the demands of these two iconic clubs can be met.”
With the BJP trying to grow in the state, the party general secretary’s overture to woo Bengal’s two biggest brands is being seen as significant. However, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, both of whom share a good rapport with the ruling TMC, have struck a cautious tone. “We have received Vijayvargiya’s letter and we have forwarded it to the IFA secretary, who will take a call on this on our behalf,” East Bengal secretary Kalyan Majumder said.
IFA secretary Utpal Ganguli said, “I have seen the letter. My view is that this is a sports matter. We are discussing with the AIFF. We are very confident about a positive outcome and we have no plans of giving any political colour to this.” Asked about the clubs’ meeting with the CM, he said: “That’s the state government. Whoever would have been the government, I would have gone there.”