On Monday, the Indian Super League returned to the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, also known as the Salt Lake Stadium, in Kolkata, for the first time since 2019. The stage was set for one of the biggest stadiums in the world to host over 80,000 of the most passionate football lovers in the country as ATK Mohun Bagan kicked off their 2022-23 ISL campaign against Chennaiyin.
Once the match got underway, though, the situation turned out to be very different from what one would have normally expected. The generally-always-full Salt Lake Stadium was almost empty, with only a handful of sections in the stadium occupied.
Why were the stands empty? Where did the Bagan fans go?
Well, they have been protesting tirelessly for the last year or so with the #RemoveATK movement and continue to do so, and as long as their protest goes on, it is unlikely that ATK Mohun Bagan will see a whole sea of supporters in the grounds on matchdays.
In this article we take a deeper look at what the movement is all about, how it started, and what lies ahead.
Mohun Bagan is one of the oldest clubs in the world. Its illustrious 133 years of legacy is untouchable, and over the years, it has become more than just a football club; it is a way of life. To give a small example as to how big the club is and what club loyalty truly means, one of India’s greatest footballers Chunni Goswami was once offered a contract from English First Division side Tottenham Hotspur back in 1962, but he turned it down to continue his career at his beloved Mohun Bagan.
In 1911, Bagan became the first Indian side to win a championship over a British team by defeating the East Yorkshire Regiment in the IFA Shield final. The club has won a record five national league titles (three National Football League titles and two I-League titles) and is the most successful Indian side when it comes to winning the Federation Cup (14 times), while also having won various other trophies over its 133-year history, including the Durand Cup (16 times), the Calcutta Football League (30 times), the Rovers Cup (14 times) and the IFA Shield (22 times). Bagan’s rivalry with fellow Kolkata club East Bengal is known as the Kolkata Derby and is regarded as one of the oldest and most reputed derbies in football history. Some of India’s finest footballers—Chunni Goswami, PK Bannerjee, Shyam Thapa, Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri—have played for Bagan at some point in their careers.
In all honesty, if we delved into the complete history of Mohun Bagan, we’d be here for a long, long time, but one gets the picture — Mohun Bagan is right in the centre of Indian football, and Indian football does not exist without Mohun Bagan.
Keeping up with the times
In 2014, when the Indian Super League (ISL) was announced, a consortium (Kolkata Games and Sports Pvt Ltd) led by former India men’s national cricket team captain Sourav Ganguly and comprising of businessmen Sanjiv Goenka, Harshvardhan Neotia and Utsav Parekh had won the bid to secure a franchise in Kolkata to participate in the ISL. The then-newly-formed Atlético de Kolkata participated as Kolkata’s sole club in the ISL, while Mohun Bagan continued its journey in the I-League. Atlético de Kolkata at the time had Spanish top-tier LaLiga outfit Atlético Madrid as co-owner. After Atlético left, the club was rebranded to ATK.
By 2020, Mohun Bagan had won a record fifth I-League title, becoming the joint-most successful team in the history of the league, while ATK continued its dominance in the ISL with a third league trophy that year. With the growth of the ISL and the impact it was having on the game in the country, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Football Sports Development Limited (FDSL), the company which runs the ISL, and the clubs of the I-League and the ISL came together to recognise the latter as India’s top-tier football league. Joint discussions also led to an agreement, which meant two I-League clubs would be allowed to join the ISL by 2022. As two of the county’s most decorated and illustrious clubs, it was a no-brainer that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were eventually chosen as the two.
The road to the ISL wasn’t an easy one, however. To put it simply, for Mohun Bagan the shift from the I-League to the ISL was a big one that needed proper financial backing. On its own, the club couldn’t move to the ISL given its financial situation.
That’s where ATK came in. After much discussions, in 2020 it was announced that ATK would be disbanded and that its ownership group would buy a majority stake (80%) in Mohun Bagan Football Club (India) Pvt Ltd, specifically in Bagan’s football division. The merged entity was called ATK Mohun Bagan Private Limited, and the team that would play in the ISL were rebranded to ATK Mohun Bagan.
When the merger was completed, Sanjiv Goenka, chairman of the RPSG Group, had said:
“RPSG Group which has a 200-year-old legacy is humbled and honoured to welcome Mohun Bagan with folded hands and open arms to the RPSG family. Personally, it’s an emotional reunion for me as my father Late Shri R P Goenka was a member of Mohun Bagan.”
Immediately after the launch, ATK Mohun Bagan announced that the team would retain Bagan’s historical green-and-maroon jersey, and only Bagan’s logo would undergo a slight change, with the words “ATK” added to it.
A question arose: why did ATK form a merger with Mohun Bagan when it already had a successful championship-winning team? While some might question its effect on the legacy of the club, if we look at it from a business perspective from ATK’s side, it is a no-brainer. Getting a club like Mohun Bagan into the ISL was a win not only for Kolkata Games and Sports Pvt Ltd (KGSPL), but also for FSDL, the ISL and its partners.
Even though initially Mohun Bagan fans welcomed the ATK management, there were various questions that needed answering. Over time, none of them were answered and today we are at a point where the club’s own fans are standing against the ownership.
What led to this situation?
To start with, the “merger” of the two clubs, as stated by KGSPL, wasn’t taken positively by the fans, and given the rich history of Mohun Bagan, it’s understandable why people didn’t want anyone meddling with their club’s illustrious history. KGSPL, though, has never clarified this, and various contradicting statements have only led to confusion and more irritation among the fanbase.
KGSPL called ATK Mohun Bagan a “merged” club initially, but after that it was referred to as a continuation of ATK, which irked more fans. When Bagan won the 2019/20 I-League title, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee congratulated the club on its record-winning triumph, which KGSPL Chairman Sanjiv Goenka acknowledged on behalf of the club.
To this day, this confusion hasn’t been clarified by the ATK management. The fact that the Bagan fans, many of whom come from families that have been supporting the club for generations, are seeing their club’s identity being toyed with is, naturally, something that has not sat well with them.
While the management continues to abstain from opening conversation with the fans, whatever little that has been spoken about the issue in the past two years has only been provocative. In September 2021, one of the board members and KGSPL stakeholder Utsav Parekh made controversial statements about the club’s history and also dropped some vague lines.
“Mohun Bagan have never been able to play in the AFC Cup on their own strength till today because they never got the opportunity. What we have done has taken Mohun Bagan’s name even higher… we are the number one in the AFC Cup in our zone, now we are going to play in the [inter-zonal] semi-finals… we have got this far, ATK Mohun Bagan’s name got bigger, right? Mohun Bagan, whatever you say, we have done enough to make sure that the name is taken to greater heights.”
While he didn’t address the #RemoveATK issue and what the management would do to address it, Parekh made two unmissable statements, the first being that Bagan had never participated in the AFC Cup on its own, which is factually incorrect given the club has taken part in the tournament multiple times, and the other being that the merger had made the Mohun Bagan bigger, a claim that doesn’t require a lot of effort to be seen through. A club with an illustrious history of over 130 years certainly doesn’t need to be put on the global map with the help of a club less than a decade old.
Mohun Bagan has been embroiled in controversy ever since that merger, with its own fans boycotting the club due to the mismanagement and the sheer lack of communication from the ownership. The fact that Parekh’s statements were baseless was quickly pointed out by the Bagan fans, and the club even responded by putting out an apology statement regarding his comments.
To make matters worse, during the 2022 AFC Cup, the new management banned fans from bringing in Mohun Bagan flags and banners to the games, which exhibited the management’s blatant disrespect towards not only the fans but the club as well. The management has also been criticised for insulting the legacy of the club through its various branding campaigns and advertisements since the merger.
A host of mismanagement issues and tarnishing of the club’s legacy didn’t leave the fans with much choice; the #RemoveATK movement was, therefore, inevitable.
SportsKhabri spoke to Alok De, a Mariner and Mohun Bagan club member for 12 years, who has been supporting the club for more than four decades.
“A sense of apprehension was always there ever since the merger was announced. The uneasy apprehension converted into rage and subsequent backlash following the distasteful washing machine ad and the black jersey episode, says Alok De, a long-time Mariner, who spoke about how the entire #RemoveATK movement started. ‘The unrest that had set in was further escalated either by the conspicuous silence of the management or by their desperation to produce narratives, different each time, justifying the merger. Around this time, in the middle of growing dissent, someone used the hashtag #RemoveATK and it became instantly popular,” De said.
Fans have also been critical of the Mohun Bagan management who agreed to the deal with KGSPL. De further added, “The merger was inked in the most shambolic manner. Making an absolute mockery of transparency and using friendly local media houses to spread rumours, the trio of Tutu Bose, Srinjoy Bose and Debashish Dutta brought about the worst crisis in the history of Mohun Bagan. The newly formed ATK-MB management followed it up by treating fans with utter disdain as if they had purchased them too. The #RemoveATK movement is a result of the atrocities carried out by the management in the name of professionalism and upgradation. In reality, in the name of professionalism they have ended up antagonising the fans and that is their only achievement till date.”
Fans put their foot down
As the old saying goes, “football is nothing without fans”, and it couldn’t be truer for the current situation. Ever since the #RemoveATK movement started, and fans have been taking to online and offline platforms to show their concern for the club and its legacy.
Bagan fans have been protesting outside the Salt Lake Stadium—even on matchdays—for the past few months with their #RemoveATK banners. With the 2020 and 2021 editions of the ISL having been held in Goa, fans couldn’t go for Bagan’s games, but as mentioned earlier, as the ninth season of the ISL got underway, Bagan played their season-opener against Chennaiyin to a near-empty Salt Lake Stadium.
With the fans continuing their protests, it doesn’t seem like ATK Mohun Bagan will be getting a lot of home support in the upcoming matches as well, unless this management mess is handled properly. The management, meanwhile, has been trying to lure fans into the stadium with free tickets and other goods, which also hasn’t worked out in their favour.
With their demands not being met, irked Bagan fans have even held protests in front of the house of Debashish Dutta, club secretary, with some even asking for his resignation. Bagan, who have won the Calcutta Football League 30 times, will not be participating in the tournament this year, with reports suggesting that the management has been worried about the protests and has, therefore, decided to pull the team out of the tournament.
It is clear that the ATK Mohun Bagan management needs to understand the importance and the power fans hold in football. One doesn’t need to go back too much to understand that. Just last year, fans all across England protested when the top Premier League clubs announced their participation in The Super League.
The message from the fans has been loud and clear for a while: they want their club back in its entirety without partnering with any other entity. While they did initially welcome the move, the mismanagement, the non-transparency between the club and its fans, and the blatant disregard for the club’s legacy and history have seen Bagan supporters change their views.
A football club is more than just a squad of players who people cheer for. Over time, they become symbols of regional identities, just as Mohun Bagan has. For the fans, their relationship with the club goes far deeper than any silverware or derby-day win. They grow up with their clubs, they are there during the highs and the lows, they feel the pain just as those on the pitch do after a devastating loss and enjoy a win as much as any of the players. For them to see their club’s legacy, culture and history being played with is something unacceptable, and now they have put their foot down.
This is not just a fight for the Bagan fans, it is something that all Indian football fans should be concerned about.
Do the signs look promising? Well, some fractions of the Bagan supporters certainly think a change will be coming soon.
De says: “It’s been tough for the fans. Corporate money blended with select local media houses and unscrupulous administrators have been a formidable force, albeit an evil one. That the fans chose to take them on bluntly has been an achievement itself. The movement has sustained and eventually grew stronger in the last two years. People have started boycotting the matches of ATK-MB. The management hasn’t been able to bring enough spectators even after luring them with free tickets and other tangible benefits. The fight that at one point looked one-sided has now garnered enough attention to make the management feel embarrassed. Questions have been asked and from here on it looks to go in only one direction — removal of ATK or the breaking of the merger.”
As we go ahead, the Mohun Bagan fans aren’t planning on stepping back into the Salt Lake Stadium. As long as the club’s management refuses to engage in direct communication or even address the issue, the stands will remain empty, the hashtags will fill up the social media, and no one will suffer as much as Indian football.