Amid rumours that the Indian Super League (ISL) club ATK could merge with Mohun Bagan, the latter confirmed on Thursday that the RPSG Group, owners of ATK, has acquired 80% of its shares.
One of the most vocal voices against the monopoly of corporate-backed ISL in Indian football, Mohun Bagan had joined forces with East Bengal, Aizawl FC, Chennai City FC, Churchill Brothers, Gokulam Kerala, Minerva Punjab, and Neroca FC for a unified league with teams from both the ISL and the I-League. The All India Football Federation (AIFF), though, never recognised the appeal and instead marked the ISL as the top-tier league of the country, replacing the I-League.
What started as the quest for a single league soon transpired into a full-fledged battle against the corporatised AIFF and Mohun Bagan gave the loudest of the war cries representing the I-League, alongside their arch-rivals East Bengal.
Writing a letter to the AIFF president Praful Patel, the representatives of the I-League clubs asked for a single league with promotion and relegation with immediate effect. They further demanded that the unified league be run by AIFF and not the Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL), their commercial and marketing partners.
Failing to find an acceptable solution the I-League clubs knocked on the door of FIFA in July last year asking its help in their fight for survival. Mohun Bagan was one of the signatories in the letter. The international body, meanwhile, had suggested the I-League teams, much to their disappointment, to work closely with the AIFF.
As AIFF remained firm on their decision to make ISL the biggest football competition of India, the I-League clubs had asked for a step-by-step inclusion of themselves into the cash-rich league starting from the 2019-20 season
However, that did not materialise as AIFF chief Praful Patel informed that it will take another 2-3 years for a single football league to become a reality. The main reason he stated was the financial aspect of the process.
“The whole thing is being looked at in a narrow way. You have an ISL, they have a certain financial structure and the I-League has a different structure. You are talking about integrating it, but how will you integrate a club which is spending ₹2 crore a year with one which is spending ₹40 crore,” Patel was quoted as saying by Sportstar.
The war did not limit itself to the administrative tables only as the Kolkata giants took to the petty ways of campaigning against the city-based ISL team ATK. From taking to the streets against them to asking the local fans to boycott ISL, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal launched a fierce crusade against the franchise-based competition.
All the hullabaloo in Indian football, especially in the Bengali section of it, paid no dividends to the cause of the I-League sides. However, it did cost the ISL a harsh fate as ATK started to witness empty stands during their home matches in the mecca of Indian football. The TRP rates saw the declining path and the viewership of online streaming suffered a huge blow as well, forcing the ISL to reconsider their stance.
According to a report by ESPN, the average attendance in ATK’s home fixtures were 45,171 and 50,707 in the first two editions of 2014 and 2015 respectively. The numbers dropped to 11,703 in next season when ATK played in a much-smaller Rabindra Sarobar Stadium. However, a return to the Salt Lake Stadium saw the figures rising to only 12,669 and 18,310 for the following seasons.
AIFF, after a meeting with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), announced in October last year that two clubs from the I-League would be offered an entry into the ISL by the end of the 2020-21 season. And given the status of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, it was believed that they could be the first two I-League teams to be allowed into the ISL but the Rs 15 crore participation fee remained an elephantine concern for the cash-strapped clubs.
Realising the need of the hours and the huge business prospect that these two clubs hold, the AIFF and the FSDL took it upon themselves to get financial backing for the Kolkata teams. It was decided that ATK would be merged with either of the two Kolkata giants.
To begin the process, ATK initially had talks with East Bengal. But the Red and God brigade did not agree to compromise on their name, logo and jersey, part of a deeply-rooted football tradition of Bengal. Also, their association with Quess stopped them from partnering with any other party.
It left ATK with the solitary option of Mohun Bagan and the latter agreed to do everything their rivals did not as they sold 80% of their share to the team they once boycotted. The Mariners may have saved their ship from sinking but in the process they have let their century-old identity and a part of Bengali culture go down the Ganges.