East Bengal are Indian Super League-bound. Yes, it’s official.
In a frantic effort to keep up with their arch-rivals Mohun Bagan who merged with ISL side ATK to become a part of India’s new top-most football tier, the Kolkata giants have turned around what appeared to be a lost cause over a month ago to enter the ISL fray.
They were blessed by the efforts of the West Bengal government who took matters in their own hands to aid East Bengal’s ailing fortunes and get them an investor despite the economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having been synonymous with Indian football for over a century and even to an extent outgrowing the ecosystem, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are back in the big league after a brief period of uncertainty when the launch of the ISL threatened to leave the two marquee clubs in its shadow. But even the cash-rich ISL couldn’t match the fanbase of the two clubs in terms of passion, dedication and loyalty.
For East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, however, joining the ISL offers a chance to get to terms with the modern way of the functioning .
While Mohun Bagan have relinquished a big part of its identity, they have gained in terms of having a readymade set-up for ISL built by ATK that would allow them to play in Asian competitions and challenge for the title from the word go. East Bengal’s challenge is slightly different. They have kept their identity more intact but they have to work their way back to the top.
As East Bengal fans celebrate the move to the ISL, former player Bhaichung Bhutia has a word of caution.
“Obviously there is going to be a challenge in terms of building the team. We should not really judge the team’s performance this year,” Bhutia said.
“All good Indian players have got long-term contracts. To build a team is going to take time because no player would be available in the market right now,” he added.
A community club
The club’s challenges don’t just end there. The way East Bengal fractured its relationship with previous investors Quess Corporation Limited, there are question marks over the club’s ability to operate in this type of a modern association.
East Bengal historically have been a community club. It emerged out of a protest against racial discrimination towards a player hailing from eastern part of Bengal in 1920. Over the years, before and after India’s independence, East Bengal became a symbol of pride for people hailing from that part of Bengal, a lot of whom had to leave behind their houses during the partition.
It was more than a football club and a symbol of what the community stood for.
East Bengal were driven by the passion of the community. Jyotish Chandra Guha, a secretary of the club in the 1950s, oversaw the most glorious chapters in the club’s history. The Pancha Pandavas side in the 1950s was regarded as one of the best sides in Asia at the time and won several accolades. Guha, a one-man administration at the club strove hard to recruit the best players from across India and travelled the length and breadth of the country for the club.
According to Novy Kapadia, who has mentioned the incident in his book Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, Guha went to Syed Nayeemuddin’s house in 1966 to convince him to sign with the club and shared a modest meal with the family. He also engaged then West Bengal chief minister to help Nayeemuddin get a NOC from Andhra Police to let him leave his job and join East Bengal.
More recently, Deepak Das made a big impact at the club. He was responsible for modernising East Bengal and turning them into one of the most modern outfits in Indian football in the noughties.
At East Bengal, the club’s success was often linked with a super administrator at the helm who would passionately take the club forward. Without one, they struggled. Passion has always scored over a structured manner of operation at the club.
Even though East Bengal performed fairly well in a 50-50 partnership with UB group, an association that lasted for 20 years, the club always had greater control over the footballing decisions. Two years ago, when Quess acquired a 70% stake in the club, the big change was that Quess had the footballing rights of the club and had an upper hand in terms of numbers on the board.
The association turned sour as there were clashes in the way Quess officials and East Bengal officials operated. This led to the Bengaluru-based investors pulling plug on the deal leaving the club in tatters. As the club transitioned from a community-based club to a corporate-owned entity, plenty of problems arose.
Optimism about new ownership
Now with Shree Cements on board and the club entering the ISL, East Bengal face a crucial phase in their history. However, there is optimism around the new investors among the fans who endured the club’s struggles in the previous partnership.
“This won’t be another Quess. Shree Cements is a Kolkata-based company and I’m sure they understand what the club means to the city and the community. The father of Shrenik Sheth’s, a member on the company’s advisory board – was the first life member of East Bengal. He has been at the heart of this deal and we expect the new owners to have a better understanding of the club,” Krishnendu Dutta, a member of the East Bengal Ultras, who has been a supporter of East Bengal for over 20 years told Scroll.in.
The fans have embraced the corporatisation of the club, a move they see as an essential one to meet the demands of modern-day football.
“In today’s times you have to be corporate,” Sumanta Sengupta, an East Bengal fan for over 40 years told Scroll.in.
“ISL is the top league in India whatever you feel about it. For East Bengal, to get there and be successful there, the club needs to change gears. I feel this partnership will help East Bengal do that. We have always been pioneers of positive change in Indian football and with this, we will be able to get back in that position,” he added.
Same old zest
East Bengal’s fans are a demanding lot but they also don’t hold back when it comes to supporting their team through the hard times.
“A set of fans are already planning to go to Goa in November. We won’t be able to get in the stadium but we as fans can go to any length to support the club. We want to be there and let the team feel our support from outside,” Dutta said.
“It’s more than a club for us, it’s a way of life,” he added.
East Bengal may have pulled off a coup by managing to get into the ISL, but with the new ownership and the different challenge that ISL poses, the clouds of uncertainty continue to hover.
But with their fans optimistic and enthusiastic about the new dawn, the club would feel energised to take on the obstacles that lie in their path. The events of the last month have been a rare upturn in fortunes of the club in the last few years.
East Bengal head into the ISL far from prepared, but with their pride very much restored.