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Why Mohun Bagan’s new ‘corporate’ ownership can’t be a bad thing for its fans

Mohun Bagan, quite like classic rock, remains a brand that evokes nostalgia among the middle-aged, more than producing a constant crop of new fans. Reeling off the genuine past talents of Gostho Pal, Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, Xavier Pius, Manas Bhattacharya, Bidesh Bose, Shyam Thapa, Shibaji Banerjee is one thing for die-hard fans, who were poster boys of Indian football

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 17, 2020, 11.40 PM IST
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ATK owners, RPSG, have picked majority stake in Mohun Bagan
Bengalis across the world are going batshit crazy over the latest acquisition of 80% majority stake in Mohun Bagan Athletic Club by the RP-Sanjiv Goenka (RPSG) Group. Traditional moaners are moaning even more about how the historic — and some would add, ‘historical’ — 130-year-old club — is now going to lose its ‘unique quality’ and ‘oithijjho’ (tradition) under a new ‘evil’ dispensation.

‘Evil’, in this case, points to ‘corporatisation’ that the club is likely to undergo, the word ‘corporate’ itself sending shivers down the spines of folks who still see Mohun Bagan in terms of 1) the club that trounced the East Yorkshire Regiment side in the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield in 1911 (wearing no boots, no less!), 2) the side that once was – and now, only by extension, is -- the epitome of footballing prowess in India, 3) the side that embodies the ‘passion’ of football that Bengalis believe only Bengalis can exude.

But how is Mohun Bagan’s ‘unique quality’ going to be destroyed under RPSG ownership? For a legacy club that overwhelmingly feeds solely off its legacy — its last truly national triumph was winning the I-League in 2015 (it finished fifth last season) — the club, under the administrative auspices of father-son duo of Swapan Sadhan ‘Tutu’ Bose and Srinjoy Bose, has continued to smack of 20th century dullness, barring occasional individual players like Brazilian striker José Barreto in the 2000s, and more recently Haitian and Japanese players Sony Norde and Katsuma Yusa (currently with ISL club Chennai FC) respectively.

Mohun Bagan, quite like classic rock, remains a brand that evokes nostalgia among the middle-aged, more than producing a constant crop of new fans. Reeling off the genuine past talents of Gostho Pal, Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, Xavier Pius, Manas Bhattacharya, Bidesh Bose, Shyam Thapa, Shibaji Banerjee is one thing for die-hard fans, who were poster boys of Indian football — before cable TV and the 1986 Mexico World Cup pretty much changed Indian football fans’ idea of what entailed the sport of football.

It is quite another thing to be a quality side at a time when the old big clubs find themselves sweating to beat the enfants almost-terribles like Gokulam Kerala and Manipur side Neroca.

But Mohun Bagan is indeed a brand, a legacy brand with an impressive support base in West Bengal. Clashes between Bagan and arch-rival East Bengal still fill up the Salt Lake Stadium and evokes the choicest of abuses and the most glorious of celebrations in Kolkata. The RPSG ‘merger’ with ISL side Atletico de Kolkata as ATK-Mohun Bagan —the marquee brand name, obviously, not being dropped for practical, ‘business’, as promised by new owner Sanjeev Goenka — is hardly jettisoning the ‘Mohun Bagan ethos’.

The problem, of course, lies elsewhere. The ownership of a ‘Bengali’ flagship football club that’s part and parcel of the Kolkata-Bengali cultural landscape by a ‘Goenka’ — no matter that the club is full of non-Bengali, not to mention foreign players — the name itself loaded with perceptions of ‘culture’ being denuded for ‘crass commercialism’, is a classic Bengali trope. The Marwari‘outsider’ as the avaricious upstart, making a grab at precious ‘Bengali’ entities like Mohun Bagan, has its many antecedents, not the least being the character of Maganlal Meghraj, the villanious bania in Satyajit Ray’s novel and film, ‘Joy Baba Felunath’.

The outbreak of outrage about the new ownership of Mohan Bagan can be seen as a microcosm of the mix of envy and anguish about ‘non-Bengali’ enterprise and money keeping the city of Kolkata economically afloat. It isn’t unlike the recent ‘doubts and suspicions’ that Government of India has shown towards ‘outsiders’ like Amazon pumping in money into Indian ecommerce.

Imagine if Arsenal fans were furious at a ‘French takeover’, as was pretty with its players much the case after Arsene Wenger joined as the north london club’s manager in 1996.

The proof of the pudding of ATK-Mohun Bagan will, of course, be whether the new ownership will lead to a more professional management of the club, better use of money in training and infrastructure and influx of players – and the club’s performance. At best, Bagan will respond well to its new stakeholders for the sake of the lakhs of others in front of television sets and football grounds. At worst, it will continue to languish — with its occasional ups, and causes for short celebrations – as it has for the last few decades, and be a strong manifestation of past (Bengali) glory.

As Mohun Bagan takes on its arch-rival East Bengal tomorrow (Sunday) in the year’s first derby, hyper-sensitive Bengali football fans (on both sides of tomorrow’s match) will stay rivetted to see any changes they can spot as ‘seeds of corporate destruction’. For the rest of India, there will be a Liverpool-Manchester-United match to watch.
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