Sanjoy Sen, Mohun Bagan’s headmaster-like coach, fumbled for words when asked how his side managed to win the I-League title. It’s a question on everyone’s lips. But few have the answer.
Since the last time they won the national championship, back in 2002, Mohun Bagan have spent more than Rs 150 crore on players, employed 14 different coaches in the last eight years alone, battled a relegation threat in 2013 and survived a financial crisis that put the future of the century-old club in jeopardy.
As he basked in the glory of leading the Kolkata giants to their first-ever I-League crown on Sunday, Sen joked he was no PC Sorcar. He did not have any magical powers. Perhaps that was the reason why the club management turned to mystic powers.
As if their stars on field were not enough, Bagan turned to the stars that controlled their destiny. One of the common sights in the VIP stands during a few Bagan matches was a astrologer, who would provide ‘valuable inputs’ to the team management.
After trying almost every trick under the sun, Bagan surrendered their fate to the stars. It’s unknown how impactful were the mystic stars. But those on the field certainly made an impression.
At the start of the season, not many would’ve given the Mariners a chance to win the title. They weren’t the underdogs. But neither were they the favourites.
Bagan did not possess the quality on paper like their arch-rivals East Bengal, nor did they have the aura and panache of defending champions Bengaluru FC.
All they had was rich history and bad PR. Plenty of it in recent times.
Despite being steeped in tradition, Bagan — or for that matter any club from Kolkata — isn’t the club that’s professional in its conduct. Former India coach Bob Houghton had (in)famously said the Kolkata giants are the reason Indian football will not move forward. The Bengal lobby swung into action almost immediately and, at the first alibi, Houghton was shown the door.
Bagan has seen 14 coaches in last eight years. The actual figure since they last won the national title is even more. But the club does not have an official count of the managers who were in charge between 2002 and 2007. They’re hired with much fanfare. Fired unceremoniously and without a reason. Santosh Kashyap would vouch for it. The current Royal Wahingdoh manager was appointed by Bagan in May 2012. However, in what is perhaps the shortest spell in Indian football history, Kashyap was shown the door by the Bagan management after just one match.
Sen is an intriguing choice in many ways. Unlike most other coaches from the region, who do not undergo coaching courses or are banking on their reputation, Sen got his credentials first before he took a plunge into coaching.
He joined Bagan last December, just a fortnight before the Federation Cup. He did not have the players he wanted – again, coaches there seldom have a say. But Sen liked the challenge. “I’m always up for a good challenge. At Bagan, only winning is accepted and I knew what was expected of me,” Sen said.
Almost 90 percent of the budget at their disposal is spent on players. Ahead of the start of the new season in 2011, Bagan managed a coup of sorts when they signed Nigerian striker Okolie Odafa from Churchill Brothers for a whopping Rs 1.6 crore in addition to several perks that included membership at a recreation club, a high-end car and a plush apartment. It was the most expensive signing in Indian football at the time.
It was not for the first time Bagan had splurged astronomical amounts on players. Over the years, they have had the luxury of recruiting some of the best national players. From Baichung Bhutia to Sunil Chhetri, Brazilian Jose Ramirez Barreto to Odafa, they have had the cream of Indian and foreign talent thanks to the huge budget at their disposal. However, the title still eluded them.
But a multi-crore rupee swindle that came to fore in 2013 burst their bubble, severely hampering the club’s finances. The chit funds contributed about Rs 25 crore a year to club football in West Bengal, money that dried up with Saradha Group going bust and the Mamata Banerjee government forced to crack down on such companies.
The Sudipta Sen-owned Saradha Group had invested heavily in Mohun Bagan, contributing close to Rs 2 crore annually. In November 2014, the club’s assistant secretary general Srinjoy Bose, who is also a Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member, was arrested by CBI in connected with the scam. Bose was the second big fish from the maidans of Kolkata to be arrested in relation to the scam, with a top East Bengal official Debabrata Sarkar too being taken into custody. To make it worse for Bagan, their accounts were frozen in September 2014. It was reported that 75 percent of the money in those accounts came from Bagan’s primary sponsors United Breweries (UB) while the rest came from secondary sponsors like Saradha, who were involved since 2010.
Bagan’s budget, which was believed to be around Rs 17 crore annually was slashed to Rs 12 crore, the amount which Vijay Mallya-backed UB Group doled out.
But before they could even rejig their accounts, Bagan were dealt with another massive blow at the start of 2015 when their the liquor baron decided to cut down on its sponsorship money to approximately Rs 5 crore.
There was a point during this season when Bagan players were not paid their salaries for around four months. Their head of youth development Jahar Das and the three youth coaches under him were not paid their salaries since July last year, while many within the club management were unpaid since last November.
The club claims most of the salaries were cleared in April, with a backlog of a month or two. But they remain under the All India Football Federation’s scrutiny. It would be foolhardy for the Bagan officials to believe that they are out of the rut with the title win.
Sen fumbled initially when asked the reason why Bagan finally ended their title drought, but convincingly muttered: “Players responded well to the challenges they faced. Their focus and attitude despite of the financial problem is commendable. It’s only because of their determination that we have won the title.”
Few would disagree.