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Kolkata clubs fall in line with ISL's demands - East Bengal, Mohun Bagan decide to pick up bids

LIKE A HOUSE OF CARDS, the last bit of resistance to ISL's takeover of the Indian football league system seems to have fallen apart.

The Invitation to Bid issued by FSDL was carefully worded to signal to the I-League's big three clubs Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal that the door was open for them. And immediately the first step was taken by Bengaluru FC, who made it clear that they were interested in bidding for a place in ISL. 

East Bengal followed shortly afterwards. Their meeting with chief sponsors Kingfisher and their parent company Heineken produced a mandate that they, too, must pick up a bid. 

Now, both East Bengal and Bengaluru FC wanted their top division status intact so it was communicated to IMG-Reliance that should they join, ISL should be officially named the top division league of India. IMG-R and AIFF could not wait to agree, making ISL the new top league was their original agenda, one that got temporarily sidelined when Aizawl FC won the I-League and threatened a public movement against forced relegation. 

So with East Bengal and Bengaluru ready to join the ISL bandwagon, Mohun Bagan were left isolated. The stakes for them were higher than ever because their brand would take a huge beating if they do not play in the same league as East Bengal and Bengaluru; their biggest rivalries that attract the most eyeballs. 

While a large chunk of the Mohun Bagan officials favoured a move to ISL, some were against it for fear of losing out on their positions of power in the club. But it seems over the last three days they have been persuaded to change their minds.

The only problem left was the lack of a principal sponsor. While JSW funded Bengaluru FC and Heineken backed East Bengal in their ISL bid, Mohun Bagan did not have anyone to provide the high budget they needed to enter the big arena. And negotiations with three potential sponsors was hung on the question of what percentage of shares would be owned by the sponsors and the officials... basically a question of having the ultimate control over the club. 

Now rumours have surfaced that some solution has been worked out on that front. It's unclear exactly what deal has been agreed upon, but it seems that the Tata Group, rather than fielding their own team from Jharkhand, have agreed to sponsor Mohun Bagan. The Mariners are expected to pick up bid documents soon.

The only remaining issue now is whether or not East Bengal and Mohun Bagan can play out of their actual home ground Kolkata, which Atletico de Kolkata hold exclusivity over for the next 2 seasons. Sources suggest that this too may find a solution, through the intervention of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The clubs are trying to use their political influence to convince ATK to give up their exclusivity. It has to be noted that if EB and MB are forced to play away from Kolkata, ATK may be painted as the villain in the media, which is likely to further deplete their mostly second-hand fanbase.

So once East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC have submitted their bid documents, the road will open up for AIFF and IMG-Reliance to announce a new league structure in Indian football comprising of ISL, League One and League Two. 

While most of the top division clubs not being considered for an ISL spot are likely to accept a forced relegation to the second tier League One, Aizawl FC may once again take up their protests against it and even take AIFF to court. But even then there will be no problem to make ISL the new top division; worst case sceneario for IMG-Reliance is having to grant Aizawl FC an ISL spot, which at the end of the day only serves to further popularise ISL. It's a win-win situation for everyone other than the I-League clubs who will be forced down to the second division.

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