As per the All India Football Federation’s future roadmap for Indian football, the ISL will become the country’s top-tier league with the I-League becoming the second division from next season onwards. In a bid to enter the ISL, Bagan have been on the lookout for potential sponsors or tie-ups for quite some time now. In fact, talks of a potential tie-up with ATK had been held before last season as well but nothing had come out of it.
This time, though, the situation is different. While neither Bagan nor ATK officials are willing to make any comments on the record, a well-placed source, close to the developments, has claimed that an official announcement of the merger will be made within the next few days. It has been further learned that most of the nitty-gritty of the merger have been decided already, including the colour of the jersey and the logo. In fact, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) has also been signed between the two clubs.
Inside sources claim that while the decision to merge was left to the two club’s decision-makers, Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL), the body which runs the ISL, also had a crucial role in it. With ISL becoming the top league of the country, having two age-old rivals, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, together in it would be beneficial for all parties concerned. Both East Bengal and Bagan command huge fan bases, which would also follow suit and move to the ISL.
East Bengal have expressed their desire to join the cash-rich league time and again. Quess Corp, their current investors, had come in with that view only. However, the relations between the club and Quess have deteriorated since and they too are in the lookout for a new partner.
Is a merger indeed the answer for FSDL?
The fans of the two clubs in question, ATK and Mohun Bagan, have not taken lightly to the news of the potential merger. After reports had first emerged over the weekend, a group of ATK fans had unfurled a “NO MERGER” banner in the gallery on Sunday during ATK-Kerala Blasters match. But it was taken down forcibly, amidst chaos and brawls, thereby escalating the tension.
“Before ATK had come into the picture, some of us supported either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan but we were frustrated. Some others only followed European football. Why? Because of the low quality of football, the famously infamous fan culture, lack of any grassroots development, among other things,” said an official from ATK fan club.
“When the ISL started, ATK gave us new hope. For the first time, we saw a professional club in Kolkata and that’s why we became fans. Now, if you are merging with Mohun Bagan, you are asking us to go back to that old ship once again and that is just not fair. People make changes so that they can move forward in life and here we are being forced to move backwards,” he continued.
He further added, “More than that, it will impossible for me, on a personal front, to go to the stadium and cheer for Mohun Bagan. If you recall, last year, during the Durand Cup clash between ATK reserves and Bagan, there was a massive brawl in the stands where their fans had hurled abuses and had physically assaulted some of us, including women and kid. I can’t just start sitting beside them and cheer for the same team.”
As for Mohun Bagan fans, even they are not in favour of a merger. ATK, for them, are a club that is a direct competitor. ATK fans, for them, are fans of a rival club.
Shubham Kumar Dey, a Mohun Bagan fan, wrote in a Facebook post, “I have no idea of ATK’s future in ISL, but about Bagan, let me make it clear that we are not beggars like a specific club that will sell its heart directly to a company in haste, notwithstanding the fact that it could be detrimental if it would fall into wrong hands with the possibility of it losing its roots and identity.”
Under the circumstances, the question remains if a merger between ATK and Mohun Bagan is indeed the answer for FSDL. While it would serve their purpose of attracting more people to the stands, the actual football fans — who have been coming to the ground for years, who have been loyal for so long — might just stop. And if that is good for Indian football or not, only time will tell.