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Monday, August 03, 2020

Explained: In 100th year, why is East Bengal teetering on the brink?

East Bengal are celebrating their centenary this year, but without a title sponsor, the century-old club is going through serious financial hardship.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: August 1, 2020 11:51:53 pm
East Bengal Football Team, Indian Super League, East Bengal Quess Corp, East Bengal ISL, Indian Express East Bengal are celebrating their centenary this year. (Express Photo/File)

The Indian Super League (ISL) dream of the Kolkata giant East Bengal appears to be all but over, at least for the 2020-21 season. The organisers of the league, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), have reportedly decided to stick to 10 teams for the upcoming season, which means that no new club/franchise is likely to be incorporated.

East Bengal are celebrating their centenary this year, but without a title sponsor, the century-old club is going through serious financial hardship.

East Bengal’s association with Quess Corp didn’t work out. What went wrong?

In July 2018, East Bengal entered into a partnership with Quess Corp by selling 70% stake in the club to the investor. Dr Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta, the assistant general secretary of the club, said Quess had inserted a clause in the contract saying the partnership would be terminated if East Bengal did not play the ISL within three years. In the autumn of 2019, however, Quess sent a letter to the management of the club, saying that they wouldn’t be continuing beyond May 31, 2020.

“The letter said that due to financial constraints, they (Quess) wouldn’t be able to continue. We tried our level best to play in the ISL. At the end of the day, they were the title sponsor, and we needed them. It is not clear to me why they decided to part ways with us,” Dasgupta told The Indian Express.

Quess Corp chairman Ajit Isaac has so far remained tightlipped on the issue.

But East Bengal did come close to joining the ISL bandwagon, didn’t they?

Indeed, they came pretty close. In the summer of 2019, Quess had received the drafts and all the necessary documents, and joining the ISL seemed to be only a signature away.

East Bengal officials claim that Isaac had assured them that he would do the needful. Isaac was scheduled to meet the club officials on a Monday. But two prior to the meeting, the Quess boss allegedly met a Mohun Bagan official, following which he backtracked. Quess’s meeting with East Bengal officials in Bengaluru wasn’t fruitful.

Back then, Bagan, too, weren’t too keen to play in the ISL – and reportedly wanted to have an association of the I-League clubs. “Such a story did the rounds in the football circles. I didn’t try to verify it. To be very frank, if a company was indeed backtracking after meeting a third party, then that was very unfortunate. What I can confirm is that we received a commitment from Quess that they would sign the draft,” Dasgupta said.

Ironically, a few months down the line, Bagan joined the ISL following their merger with ATK.

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East Bengal Football Team, Indian Super League, East Bengal Quess Corp, East Bengal ISL, Indian Express Quess and East Bengal parted ways on May 31. Club officials have been paying bills out of their own pocket ever since. (Express Photo/File)

So obviously, the directors of Quess and the officials of East Bengal had difficulty working together after that?

It was a serious setback. Quess and the red-and-gold officials weren’t on the same page over the running of the football team.

It has been alleged that Quess made club officials peripheral with regard to the appointment of head coach Alejandro Menendez and some foreign players.

The counter allegation is that the club officials tried to interfere in football matters. East Bengal general secretary Kalyan Majumdar reportedly launched a broadside at the coach during a board meeting, which didn’t go down well with the Quess representatives. And after the eleventh hour backtracking, the relationship between the two sets of officials virtually reached the point of no return.

“Before the I-League last year, we told them (Quess) that player recruitment wasn’t up to the mark, and we would rope in players for a few problem positions, and the company didn’t have to pay a paisa. We knew that without good recruitment, we would suffer in the I-League. See, we needed the sponsor. We wanted at least one meeting a month. We even went to Bengaluru to meet Mr Isaac. But he avoided us. With regard to Kalyan da, some of his comments were distorted. Some people tried to malign him,” Dasgupta said.

So where do things stand now?

As on date, East Bengal don’t have a sponsor. The operating expense for a club/franchise to play in the ISL is in excess of Rs 40 crore per season, including Rs 15 crore as franchise fee. According to Dasgupta, however, the club has time until August 31, when the schedule for the upcoming season would be put out.

“We haven’t seen any directive from the FSDL in terms of not incorporating a new team and my understanding is that they have extended it till August 31. FSDL had spoken about incorporating both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the ISL as legacy clubs to raise the league’s popularity,” Dasgupta said.

East Bengal Football Team, Indian Super League, East Bengal Quess Corp, East Bengal ISL, Indian Express East Bengal fans celebrate. The operating expense for a club/franchise to play in the ISL is in excess of Rs 40 crore per season. (Express Photo/File)

Is the club still looking for investors, then?

The effort, according to the club’s assistant general secretary, is relentless and ongoing. To use a footballing analogy, East Bengal officials know they will have to score in the add-on time to pull off a win. “We are leaving no stone unturned. We have been talking to investors. We are trying for a merger with an existing ISL franchise as well,” Dasgupta said.

Did East Bengal seek political help?

The club, Dasgupta said, had a meeting with BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya. “We also approached the Hon’ble Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. She has always been very helpful. We are exploring every option,” Dasgupta said.

But why did East Bengal’s negotiations with ATK fall through?

Before their merger with Bagan, ATK had negotiated with East Bengal, but things didn’t work out. “They (ATK) approached us and wanted a takeover through an 80-20 shareholding pattern. But we had a bitter experience, when we ceded control (to Quess) in a 70-30 shareholding pattern. Whoever be the investor, we will follow certain morals and principles. Those have been East Bengal’s strengths. It’s not that we would put pen to paper one fine morning,” Dasgupta said.

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Without sponsors, how is the club meeting day-to-day expenses?

Quess and East Bengal parted ways on May 31. Club officials have been paying bills out of their own pocket ever since. The basic monthly expenditure for the club is close to Rs 50 lakh, including payments to staff and the upkeep of East Bengal’s academies and football school. But this can only be a temporary arrangement.

What will happen to the players that East Bengal have signed?

East Bengal have already signed some players like Cavin Lobo, Sehnaj Singh, Bikash Jairu, Balwant Singh, and the Iranian winger Omid Singh. On Wednesday, they appointed Francisco Jose Bruto Da Costa as their head coach. The contracts will be effective from August 1, but the majority of the players have a clause in their contracts saying if East Bengal didn’t play the ISL, they would be eligible to leave.

Without sponsors, can East Bengal play even the I-League?

Budget for an I-League club is around Rs 12 crore per season. East Bengal need a sponsor to play in the I-League as well. Dasgupta mentioned the club’s never-say-die spirit and its millions of passionate supporters in India and abroad. “We have survived for 100 years and East Bengal will never die. Our members/supports will pull us through,” Dasgupta said.

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