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SUNBURNT TERRACE - Mohun Bagan, Utsav Parekh & KGSPL's mountain of misconceptions

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IT'S THE SAME DAMN STORY again and again.

Something comes out of the KGSPL (Kolkata Games & Sports Private Limited) management. A tweet, a press release, a website, a jersey, a statement or something else. The Mohun Bagan fans react to it with anger, saying it's an attack on their club's history, identity and heritage. Then, depending on how bad it is, there is either silence from KGSPL or a retraction and/or correction. And everyone paying attention is sure about two things:

1) #RemoveATK will trend on Twitter
2) This will happen again

Yesterday we witnessed the latest edition of this featured serial drama. Utsav Parekh, a KGSPL stakeholder and board member of ATK Mohun Bagan FC, spoke to an online outlet called The Independent Bengal. When he was asked about the 'Remove ATK' movement that's been going on for a while among Mohun Bagan fans, he had some words to say that were, let's say, slightly controversial.

He brought up the performance of the team last season to justify his stance on the matter. He talked about how they have reached the final of ISL 2020-21. Then he brought up the AFC Cup,

"Mohun Bagan have never been able to play in 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 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."

A loaded statement. Loaded with untruth, that is.

Mohun Bagan have had the opportunity to play in AFC Cup a number of times. Before 2021, the Mariners made four previous appearances in this tournament in 2007, 2009, 2016 and 2017. Before that, Mohun Bagan also played in the Asian Cup Winners' Cup - the predecessor to AFC Cup - in 1990. Mohun Bagan also appeared in the main stages of Asian Club Championship - which is now known as the AFC Champions League - in 1987, 1988, 1994, 1995 and 1999. After it became ACL and adopted a new format, Mohun Bagan appeared in its qualifying stages twice - in 2002 and 2016. In fact, Mohun Bagan are the only Indian club "till today" to have a win to their name under the ACL banner; which they earned by beating Tampines Rovers in the qualifiers in 2016.

All in all, among Indian clubs, Mohun Bagan have made the most appearances in AFC tournaments. That's because they are the most successful club in the history of Indian domestic football. They have won 3 NFL, 2 I-League and 14 Federation Cup titles; all of which earned them the right - and "opportunity" - to represent India in Asia.

In fact, the slot that ATK Mohun Bagan FC are using to play in AFC Cup 2021, was earned by Mohun Bagan when they became the champions of I-League 2019-20.

So the literal elements of Utsav Parekh's statement were patently untrue. Let's discuss the figurative parts.

Taking Mohun Bagan's name to "greater heights" is a bold claim to make. There are club officials who spend decades at the club, players who win half a dozen trophies wearing the iconic green-and-maroon and still do not dare to make that claim. Indeed, at a club that has hundreds of trophies in its cabinet and produced some of the all-time-great footballers in the country, it takes something massive to one-up your predecessors.

Now, KGSPL entered a tie-up with Mohun Bagan in 2020. Their first season in ISL was undoubtedly a good one. They finished second in the table, losing out on the League Winners' Shield (The de-facto 'Champions of India' trophy) to Mumbai City. They went into the final of playoffs (Which according to AFC is considered as a different tournament altogether) and lost to Mumbai City FC again.

Finishing second is not a bad result. But anyone who is familiar with Mohun Bagan knows that being a runner-up in a domestic competition is considered to be a failure in this club, not a "greater height."

Mohun Bagan finished second in the top division league in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Not a single word of praise was offered to the head coach Sanjoy Sen or the club officials by the fans. Next season, they were again in the title race till the last day of the season and lost. There was no celebration for the blood and sweat put in by the players, but there were tears from the fans for missing out on another league title.

This is the harsh reality of a club like Mohun Bagan as opposed to one like ATK FC. When you have so much silverware to your name, a second place doesn't seem like something to celebrate no matter how hard you tried.

Let's move on to the AFC Cup. So far, ATK Mohun Bagan FC have played 3 matches. They won twice, and drew once. They finished at the top of their group. An unequivocally praiseworthy effort. But does it take Mohun Bagan's name to "greater heights" as Mr Parekh claimed?

The Mariners have reached the group semi stages of the Asian Club Championship, the top tier of AFC club competitions. AFC Cup is the second tier tournament. So right out of the bat we have a problem with claiming anything accomplished in AFC Cup as a "greater height."

But focusing specifically on AFC Cup, Mohun Bagan had a pretty good performance in 2016. They finished at the top of their group with, beating clubs like Maziya (Maldives), South China (Hong Kong) and Yangon United (Myanmar). In the second round match, which took place 3 days after the Mariners won the Federation Cup, a tired and depleted Mohun Bagan side which was missing the majority of their regular starters lost in extra time.

Compare that to the 2021 campaign so far. Due to the restructuring of AFC Cup's format, the Mariners have only faced opponents from South Asia so far; not stronger opponents from Asean or East Asian zones like they did in 2016. They have beaten Maziya, as they did in 2016. They have also beaten familiar foe Bengaluru FC. But the win against Maziya remains their only victory over an overseas club so far. When they faced Bashundhara Kings, they went a goal down before getting even in the second half against their Bangladeshi opponents who played half the game with 10 men.

It's entirely possible that ATK Mohun Bagan will beat FC Nasaf Qarshi later this month and reach the inter-zone final, which is the de-facto semi final of AFC Cup. That would indeed be a major feat. Mohun Bagan have not reached the semi-final of AFC Cup before. In fact, no Indian club has beaten a Central Asian opponent since 2006. Beating Nasaf would be comparable to Mohun Bagan's famous victory over Omani club Fanja SC in 1988. History truly awaits the Mariners on 22nd September and if they succeed, Mr Utsav Parekh can make an arguable claim to have taken Mohun Bagan's name to a height previously unattained.

But going by what they have done so far, can that claim be made? The answer is a simple no.

But of course, the statement was made, and the fans immediately responded with anger. There was immediate backlash on social media. But this time, things went one step further.

Even though over the last year the fans - including every major fan club - have been clamouring to remove the ATK prefix from the team's name, the Mohun Bagan club officials have never supported this. In fact they spoke in favour of KGSPL multiple times, and asked supporters to back the team and have patience.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, Mohun Bagan officials Debashish Dutta and Srinjoy Bose, who are also members of the ATK Mohun Bagan FC board of directors, made a public statement against their investors.

The reaction was swift. The ATK Mohun Bagan social media pages posted an apology just a few minutes later, adding to their long list of retractions following adverse reaction from the fans.

But unlike most of the previous reatractions, the Mohun Bagan fans were unconvinced by this "apology." Because, to them, Utsav Parekh's behaviour fits perfectly into a pattern of behaviour that KGSPL have engaged in repeatedly, and Mariners appear to have lost their patience at this point.

It began on the same day when Mohun Bagan's alliance with KGSPL was announced. The official press release claimed that this was a "new merged club." And Utsav Parekh, a familiar character when it comes to controversial statements, said in an online show,

"Within six months to one year we are not going to say that you are a Mohun Bagan fan or you are an ATK fan. You are an ATK Mohun Bagan fan. That is what we are striving. That is what we will do and that is what we will achieve."

This irked the Mariners but there wasn't a big backlash because the positive on that day outweighed the negative. The team's logo and jersey colours were exactly the same as Mohun Bagan. The overarching message was that the Mariners' identity was being carried forward in this partnership. The fans were happy, they welcomed Dr Sanjiv Goenka and his associates to their club, and remained hopeful that the rest of the details would work out over time.

But soon it turned out that KGSPL had different plans. They made a derogatory TV ad that led to the Mohun Bagan fans raising their voices against the investors for the first time. They also tried their hardest to portray ATK Mohun Bagan FC as a continuation of KGSPL's erstwhile franchise ATK FC, by branding it as "defending champions of ISL" and putting 3 stars with the words "ISL 2019-20 defending champions" on the sleeve of the jersey.

This was particularly funny because this claim contradicted their own previous claim of ATK Mohun Bagan being a "new merged club."

But neither of KGSPL's claims were supported by the fact that this team was using Mohun Bagan's IFA affiliation for its registration purposes and was going to play in Mohun Bagan's AFC Cup slot. Clearly, in terms of footballing continuity, this team was Mohun Bagan with re-branding.

And this was admitted by none other than Dr Sanjiv Goenka, the majoriy shareholder of ATK Mohun Bagan FC and the head of KGSPL. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee congratulated Mohun Bagan for winning the I-League, Dr Goenka responded to them, thanking them as the ATK Mohun Bagan Chairman.

Of course, I-League was won by Mohun Bagan, not ATK FC. So Dr Goenka's statements clearly indicated that ATK Mohun Bagan is a continuation of Mohun Bagan.

Legal terms like 'New Team' or 'New Entity' are common in Indian football when a club signs a new investor. It was there when Mohun Bagan and East Bengal signed their previous investors like McDowell's, Kingfisher, Quess etc. It's even there in the proposed deal between East Bengal and Shree Cement Limited. The difference is none of the other investors tried to spin that language to call the deal a "merger." They upheld the club's actual history, didn't try to corrupt its identity.

Either way, the fans' protests continued and it led to a series of retractions. The offending ad was edited down. The 3 stars and "defending champions" gimmick was scrapped. And ATK Mohun Bagan was referred to as 'ISL debutants' from that point onwards.

The Mohun Bagan fanbase welcomed all of these moves and for a while all was well. The Mariners whole-heartedly supported the team. In fact, when Mohun Bagan played East Bengal for the first time in ISL, the fact that it was held in Goa in the middle of a pandemic did not dim the festivities. There were more than 60 screenings held all around West Bengal where fans gathered and celebrated the victory with fireworks.

But soon the celebratory vibes were halted when the team took to the pitch wearing a third kit that had the same design as a third kit previously worn by ATK FC. The same damn story repeated itself. Fans protested, #RemoveATK trended on Twitter, and the offending third kit was unceremoniously removed.

But at this point the pattern of "offend first then retract" was becoming apparent to the Mohun Bagan fans. Whether intentionally or not, KGSPL had convinced a lot of Mariners that they were doing to their club what RPSG did to the HMV brand, by acquiring it and then slowly phasing it out. One fan associated with a fan club proposed a theory in a private chat forum,

"ATK doesn't have its own identity so they always borrow it from others. Atletico de Kolkata was named after Atletico de Madrid. Then the Spanish club left so they could not use that name any more. That's why now they are using Mohun Bagan's name to boost their business. They don't want to take Mohun Bagan forward. They are just using our brand recognition and fanbase to deck up their team. They want to brainwash the new generation of fans into thinking there is no Mohun Bagan without ATK."

Although the controversies somewhat died down after the third kit was withdrawn, the relationship between KGSPL and Mohun Bagan fans was no longer what it was. All major fan clubs were now boycotting the ATK Mohun Bagan team. The myriads of mistakes and misrepresentations on the ATK Mohun Bagan official website, and subsequent half-corrections, did not help the matter.

In the lead up to the AFC Cup 2021 group stage matches, however, things were looking a lot better. The offical AFC social media accounts were treating the team as a continuation of Mohun Bagan.

They made several references to the Mariners' history in the AFC Cup, which were appreciated by fans. The first group stage game against Bengaluru FC had a particularly positive vibe, with AFC's on-screen scoreboard during the game identifying the team as 'Mohun Bagan.'

Photo Courtesy - AFC Cup

All this were perfectly logical things to do. But since nobody had done these in domestic tournaments due to KGSPL's branding strategy, for Mohun Bagan fans it was a rare treat to see their identity and history being accurately presented by a tournament, that too the AFC Cup.

But of course, if we know anything from the well-established pattern of behaviour, KGSPL would have to spoil the good thing.

After the match, KGSPL reached out to AFC and asked them to change the team's identity to fit their manufactured branding strategy. And AFC agreed, mostly to avoid any unwanted legal liabilities. In the next match when the team took to the field, the scoreboard identified it as 'ATKMB FC.' References made to their previous record in the tournament also stopped, with the AFC Cup social media accounts contradicting their own previous statements by calling this the Mariners' "debut AFC Cup campaign."

This was the straw that broke the camel's back, when it came to the relationship between Mohun Bagan fans and KGSPL. Due to the KGSPL's long history of trying to manipulate the narrative around ATK Mohun Bagan, this move was seen by the fans as an attempt to wipe out the Mariners' hard-earned history of representing Indian football in the Asian stage. 

And this brings us to yesterday. This age-old pattern of behaviour is why the fans saw Utsav Parekh's comments - whether made intentionally or by error - as just another attempt by KGSPL to denigrate Mohun Bagan's history, heritage & identity. And this is why fans are not taking KGSPL's quick apology seriously: because they fully expect them to do it again.

In an impromptu live stream organized by a leading fan group, fans responded in real time to the apology. One supporter pointed out that the language of the statement attempted to paint ATK Mohun Bagan and Mohun Bagan as separate entities. Another accused Mohun Bagan officials and KGSPL of playing a "got-up game" of statement and counter-statement to calm down the fans and control the damage done by Mr Parekh.

Let's continue with the interview itself. Mr Parekh had further elaborated on his thoughts about the 'Remove ATK' movement by the fans, saying,

"I want to say to the fans, baba, please forget about the old thing and support ATK Mohun Bagan. We are trying our best through our work to make ATK Mohun Bagan's name emerge higher... That controversy is over. It's ATK Mohun Bagan now. There's no point dwelling on what has shut down ['Bondho hoye geche'], the controversy... what I want is for supporters to back the team... our goal is to make this to be one of the best teams in Asia."

Here, it's unclear what he referred to in Bengali as 'bondho hoye geche' which in English can mean both 'shut down' or 'over/ended.' He may be talking about the 'Remove ATK' controversy, or the Mohun Bagan club itself. Of course, a large portion of the fanbase immediately assumed the worst. KGSPL's past behaviour, according to them, does not warrant a benefit of the doubt.

However, both of those instances would make this particular statement objectively untrue. The 'Remove ATK' controversy is far from over, as evidenced by the fact that the hashtag #RemoveATK trends every single time ATK Mohun Bagan plays a match and over time, support behind the cause has only increased, to the point that every Mohun Bagan fan club with a sizeable presence in the Maidaan is now a part of this movement.

As for Mohun Bagan, saying that club has shut down is laughably wrong. Even apart from football, the 132 year old multi-sport institution is still as active as ever in cricket and athletics. And perhaps the fact that Mr Utsav Parekh is having to address the fans of Mohun Bagan would give him a clue that Mohun Bagan is still very much around.

And the patronising tone from Mr Parekh, talking down to the fans, using words like 'baba' as if he's addressing a bunch of kids, did not escape the fans. This, too, was immediately seen as emblematic of the general attitude KGSPL has had towards the Mohun Bagan fanbase.

Mr Parekh further remarked about the 'Remove ATK' movement,

"I have heard that there were some vested interests, that's all it was."

If that's truly what he has been told and believes, that would explain the disdain that certain KGSPL officials have shown towards the Mariners. It would also indicate that he is completely removed from what's going on in his own team's fanbase. This is not atypical of the KGSPL management, although there are exceptions. 

The elected officials of Mohun Bagan AC, who have a thousand faults and face repeated harsh criticism from the fans for them, are still careful to address the fans with respect and engage with them as fellow will-wishers of the club. But KGSPL's public-facing outlets, apart from a couple of tweets about legends' birthdays and such, have constantly placed themselves apart and above the fanbase. And there are certain KGSPL employees who openly express their hatred for Mohun Bagan and its fans, and continue to represent the 'Remove ATK' movement as a fringe phenomenon that the fans will forget about when the team wins a few games or trophies.

This flippant attitude towards the Mohun Bagan fans - similar to the demeanour intially shown by club officials associated with European Super League who dismissed their core fanbase as "legacy fans" to disastrous effect - indicates that the KGSPL mangement is under the impression that the Mariners are the same as entertainment-oriented IPL fans or the free ticket-crowd that went to ATK FC's matches.

The multi-generational Mohun Bagan fanbase that has kept the club alive through British occupation and multiple financial crises, making it the only club in the country to survive 130+ years and still remain competitive at the highest level of domestic sport it's allowed to participate in (In football national level, in cricket & athletics state level). This is not a fanbase that forgets everything for a trophy or two, of which it has seen plenty. This fanbase does not come to the stadium to be entertained but out of a sense of duty towards what it calls the 'Mother Club.'

This loyalty factor, which compels them to spend a lifetime supporting the club and also pass the baton of fandom to future generations, is the best kind of asset a club can have. But KGSPL, in their high wisdom, are trying to demean and destroy their own USP.

There's a reason why by 2019-20 the ATK FC jersey looked barren. But the moment Mohun Bagan entered ISL, and had the guarantee of multi-channel prime time telecast and a marketing push it has never had before, major sponsors like SBOTOP flocked in to sponsor the team.

Fans like these can't be bought. This is something KGSPL should be well aware of given their experience with ATK FC. One can gather a few people, sit them down in the 3-4 blocks that are directly in view of the main camera and make it look good on TV even though the rest of the stadium is empty, but those spectators won't show up right after cremating their parent or child. They won't make the club a part of their identity and argue on its behalf with their friends and colleagues. There won't be vegetable sellers who travel across the country in a general compartment on their own dime to watch an away game. There won't be fans who teach their children about the club before they teach them about football. There won't be expats who spend their own money to hold multi-city screenings in North America to popularize the club among Indian and western communities or spend months organizing a Times Square billboard to celebrate the club's special day.

When the Mariners support their team, they are not just supporting the existing 11 players on the pitch. They are supporting everyone who has ever spent their blood, sweat and tears for the club going all the way back to 15th August 1889. It's an assertion of the identity of themselves, their club and their communities. A declaration that even though the world can change beyond recognition, the green-and-maroon flags and the boat-and-sail emblem have always been there, serving Indian football. It was there before the current set of fans were born and it will be there after they die. And that's a core part of being a Mohun Bagan fan.

To ask Mohun Bagan fans to "forget and support" is akin to asking them to forget their own family. Because to most, Mohun Bagan is intrinsically tied to their family. Most of them were introduced to the club by elders they love and respect, and accepting KGSPL's "merged club" entity means betraying those very people.

Utsav Parekh and KGSPL, whether they knew it or not, put Mohun Bagan fans in a position where they must reject 132 years of history and a lifetime of personal memories if they are to fully accept ATK Mohun Bagan. And the fans have overwhelmingly chosen Mohun Bagan over KGSPL's narrative.

Ever since the AFC Cup incident, there has been a shift in the discourse among Mohun Bagan fans. While earlier it was about removing the prefix from the club's name, now it has arrived at a stage where many want the people who continue to insult their club to simply get out of it. In the words of one regular match-going fan,

"If they don't want to be Mohun Bagan, why are they here in the first place? They had ATK, they could have stuck with that."

The aforementioned impromptu live stream which had representatives from multiple fan clubs reached a consensus that their demand going forward would be to 'De-Merge.' It goes without saying that the trust that Mariners had shown towards KGSPL last year is fast eroding. And the worse case scenario for KGSPL - which is the Mohun Bagan fans actually believing their malicious branding and using it against them - is becoming a reality.

Whether Utsav Parekh is aware of all this or not, he did make an appeal to the Mohun Bagan fans in the controversial interview,

"Without your support we won't be able to go far. That's why I want the fans to support us, on Twitter, on hashtag... insta, anywhere. But support us."

Which begs the question: does he realise how absurd it is for him to ask Mohun Bagan fans to support a team that, according to his own company KGSPL, is not Mohun Bagan?

Perhaps it's time for KGSPL management to finally realise they are not dealing with a bunch of consumers of entertainment who will blindly spend money on their brand, but an educated fanbase that's well aware of the business and political aspects of Indian football.

Over the last year, many have tried to argue that it's essential for Mohun Bagan to be with KGSPL. How it's not possible for the club to put together the budget to play in ISL by itself. But these arguments have been debunked by the fans who pointed out that the so-called necessity of KGSPL is born out of ISL (Which is now the top division league) being a pay-to-play competition with limited franchise slots. This restricted the number of entrants to the league and also, due to its steep franchise fees, artificially inflated the clubs' annual budget to create a situation where clubs like Mohun Bagan can't field a team with their own smaller budgets, despite deserving a place in the top division league by sporting merit.

But this, too, is temporary. The AFC-FIFA roadmap, which has been adopted by AIFF and FSDL, is going to phase out the franchise system by 2025 and institute an open league system. This will make it possible for clubs to participate in ISL without buying a franchise slot or paying a high franchise fee.

So, the only essential items that KGSPL bring to the table e.g. money and a franchise slot, are both going to become non-essential over the next 4 years. What happens then?

Also, the last season let FSDL know how much value Mohun Bagan and East Bengal bring to ISL. There's a reason they want to have the Kolkata Derby under their own banner. During the Shree Cement - East Bengal disputes, they tried their best to help both parties overcome their differences. They also encouraged Mohun Bagan & KGSPL to enter the deal in the first place. Given that KGSPL is constantly antagonizing the Mohun Bagan fans causing them to boycott the ISL, it will be interesting to see what FSDL's stance would be when the 'Remove ATK' movement launches its next phase once the pandemic eases enough to allow for demonstrations and marches organized by a united front comprising of twenty-odd fan clubs that will be much larger than the ones so far which were done by one or two fan groups on their own.

Basically KGSPL have arrived at a point where they must make a choice. There are three options:

1) They can accept the fans' demand to remove the ATK prefix and remove all references to this team being a 'merged club' from their official platforms, declaring this team to be a continuation of Mohun Bagan. They can use any of their brands other than ATK as a prefix; including RPSG, Spencers, CESC or SG. If they are seen as an investor that identifies itself with Mohun Bagan and works to improve it, fans are likely to support them again, once with time they come to trust KGSPL through its actions. Wounds can heal and bridges can be mended. But not without some patience and genuine effort, given all that has happened over the last year.

2) They can leave Mohun Bagan. At this point there are not many fans who will ask them to stay. In fact, many of them have started to believe that in order to save Mohun Bagan, those who are constantly attacking its identity must be made to leave the club. The officials may have a different opinion, but theirs or the club members' opinions don't supersede what the larger fanbase wants.

3) They can keep trying to propagate a narrative that turns more and more fans against them every passing day. Fans are growing desperate already, and the team won't be playing behind closed doors or away from its home city forever. 

The first two offer a resolution. The third, if followed, will produce the same damn story again and again.

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