Abstract: The article’s primary focus is to analyse the reasons why the Mariners are upset about joining forces with ATKFC. This piece will look at the ground reality of why such a state of affairs came into being and what its implications are for Indian Football. It will also investigate the political and economic strategies that lie behind the matter.
Football has had its roots in India since British times, and when we talk about the genesis of the sport in the country, there’s but one team that comes to mind- Mohun Bagan. Mohun Bagan Athletic Club (MBAC) is an Indian professional sports club based in Kolkata, which was founded on 15th August 1889. Football in India, much like everywhere else, is an extremely tribalistic sport and the MBAC fans or the ‘mariners’ are living proof. Thus, the dilution of the Mohun Bagan brand after the merger with 3-time Indian Super League champions, ATK (Amar Tomar Kolkata) to form ATK Mohun Bagan FC led the mariners to believe that their club’s legacy was being threatened.
The official union came into existence on June 1, 2020, and the first board of directors on July 10, 2020, revealed its finer details. The new logo retained Mohun Bagan’s iconic green and maroon boatman, famously called the “Pal Tola Nouka”, to pay homage to the century-old sporting club. The unification seemed like a match made in heaven, primed to forge a winning partnership in all the footballing events organised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body of the association of Indian football. However, ever since snapshots of the club jersey worn by players during the ongoing practice session in Goa have emerged, the ardent mariners have taken issue with the three stars stitched on the jersey, symbolic of ATK’s three ISL titles along with the tag ‘Champions 2019-20.’ What added fuel to the fire was the ISL’s new advertisement that showed an old Mohun Bagan jersey and an ATK jersey being tossed into a washing machine and emerging as ATK-Mohun Bagan’s jersey. A large section of the Bagan fans felt it to be an assault on the tradition and history of the club.
To better understand this reaction, one needs to look at the evolution of sports in early 19th century Bengal. While games like cricket and football were looked upon as exclusive European preserves due to the relatively higher requirements of equipment and training, indigenous sports like wrestling were confined to the lower classes. The educated Bengali middle class mostly remained aloof from all kinds of sporting activity. This changed on 29th July 1911 when eleven barefooted Bengali boys of Mohun Bagan defeated the hard-tackling and physically fitter British of East Yorkshire Regiment. By becoming the first team to win the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield, Mohun Bagan boosted the nationalist spirit amongst Indians. The victory established Kolkata as the nerve centre of football in India and heralded the city’s long-lasting love affair with the sport.
Bagan’s win had debunked the theory that the British belonged to a superior race, something that the Congress party and proponents of the Swadeshi Movement had been attempting to do in the political sphere. Over the next 130 years, the club managed to win 30 Calcutta Leagues, 16 Durand Cups, 14 Rovers Cups, 22 IFA Shields, a record of 14 Federation Cup titles and 5 National League titles- three in the National Football league and two in its reformed version, the I-League. Their success gained Mohun Bagan its popularity and fan base, although it stayed mainly within the ‘original’ residents of West Bengal, i.e, those who lived in Indian Bengal prior to partition. This was in contrast to their bitter rival, East Bengal, another Kolkata based century-old football club, whose fans are mostly Bengalis who migrated to India post-partition and assert themselves as ‘Bangal’ in opposition to the ‘Ghoti’ mariners. The Kolkata Derby is arguably the biggest football rivalry in Asia and is often compared to the iconic Old Firm derby of Scotland, fought between the Protestant ‘native’ Rangers and Catholic ‘immigrant’ Celtic.
The main disagreement behind the fallout between the fans and the administration is the powerful attachment of every mariner with the club identity. The feeling of being sacked and losing the right to call it theirs is one of the main reasons for their protests -they feel that they might lose their club ties since the major stakes are held by the owners of ATK FC. Bagan had previously been like a family to many when it came to the functioning of the club. The President, the Secretary and the Board of Directors were all chosen by the fans through a voting system, unlike any other club. Rubbing salt into their wounds, East-Bengal too joined ISL after entering into a joint venture with Shree Cement which owns 76% of its shares. The changes to the club were minimal, their name changed from ‘Quess East Bengal FC’ to ‘Sporting Club East Bengal FC’, in stark contrast to Bagan’s case.
However, the shifting of these two clubs into the ISL is part of a bigger issue — football in the 21st Century has long ceased to be just a sport. Passion has been married with business, and money is the engine that drives this relationship. Fans’ criticism surrounding the growing commercialisation of football is slowly souring their relationship with their once-favourite clubs. And one can see a similar trajectory with the events that have taken place in the Indian Football Circuit over the last two years. Very few clubs in the world have fans as intensely passionate as Mohun Bagan’s, but unlike other clubs, this club does not have a concrete and sustainable financial model to run the show. The Athletic Club got registered as a private limited company in 1998 after the conglomerate company United Breweries Group bought 50% stakes in the club and formed United Mohun Bagan Private Limited. This joint venture came to an end in 2015 and the club faced many financial impediments afterwards, till it approached the owners of ATK FC and they bought 80% share in the new entity. Mariners turned to crowdfunding and selling and lending their assets to provide financial assistance to the club for buying players, paying salaries to the management and for other daily activities of the club. Generally, revenue sources for Indian clubs come from sponsorships, tickets sales, player trading and merchandise sales. Although Bagan enjoys massive support in Kolkata, they are hardly able to draw spectators. The average attendance of fans in the stadium is around 5000 per match and against arch-rivals East Bengal in the Kolkata derby, the number goes up to 40,000. The increasing capitalisation of football is leading to a process of disintegration within the subcultural fan scene. In recent years, football clubs have become commercial enterprises that operate according to the market economy much like any other industry. Sports and apparel manufacturers such as Nivia or Nike earn millions with fan merchandise. According to the Economic Times estimates, the operational cost of running a franchise in ISL is anywhere between INR 25-35 crore. In the year 2014-15, ATK FC reported a net loss of INR 33 Crore and in 2017-18, the amount touched INR 53.2 Crore, says Mint Analysis. At those times of difficulties, the economic thing to do would be to cut spending and trim their budgets. But modern football doesn’t work like that. A drop-off could have disastrous consequences on their future ability to win trophies. And in turn, that could have an effect on commercial deals or negatively impact clubs’ earnings.
The devotion and loyalty of the mariners paved the way for the dispute and displayed that without the fans’ support a sport or a football club is nothing. Commercialisation has also made an impact on the emotional bond between the fan and the club. Fans feel pushed out of the focus and are concerned about its legacy: the generations of support, heritage and tradition the club has enjoyed. This was exemplified in European football by the now failed Super League, which faced intense pushback from fans across clubs, even ones who secured automatic places in the League. One reason for this disconnect could be due to rising player salaries and transfer sums; football has lost touch with its working-class roots. Global expansion in particular is seen as a big problem by the supporters as because of the efforts of clubs and associations to conquer new markets, decisions are made in light of new economic prospects. Even though a strong bond continues to be seen with the fans despite the current degree of commercialisation, it would certainly need to be seen if this emotional attachment can withstand further pressure.