PROTESTING EAST BENGAL and Mohun Bagan fans delivered a low turnout at Kolkata Derby today in the ISL.
Mohun Bagan fans have been running a protest against KGSPL, the majority shareholders of their football team, for over two years, demanding a removal of the team's 'ATK' brand prefix and a guarantee to safeguard the 134 year old club's identity, history and heritage. The demands to 'Remove ATK', 'Break the Merger' and 'Goenka Out' were raised by the Mariners in response to KGSPL's attempts to portray this team as a "merged club born in 2020" despite it actually being Mohun Bagan with a re-branded name.
Meanwhile, East Bengal fans have been dealing with financial and structural uncertainties at their club over the last three years. Their previous two investors, Quess and SCL, left the club over disagreements with the officials. The new investors, Emami, have also failed to impress with their team-building and management so far. The Red and Gold faithfuls blame club officials like Nitu Sarkar, claiming the influence of such officials has been dragging their club down. They have been clamouring for the removal of such officials from the club, raising their demands through the 'Nitu Out' slogan.
A large number of independent fan groups from both the clubs have been boycotting the matches and urging other fans to do the same. As a result, attendance in the ISL games at Kolkata have been increasingly going down over the last few months.
Now, with the arch rivals facing off in the classic 'Kolkata Derby', the league and club authorities had hoped for the situation to turn around; that the 102 year old rivalry would pull the fans back to the stadium in high numbers. Usually, this fixture attracts fans from across the state who travel to be a part of the occasion, and tickets sell out very fast.
But this time it was not the case. In the days before the match, several newspapers including the Ananda Bazar Patrika reported on the poor ticket sales and empty ticket counters. Instead of the usual sight of a sea of people descending on the Salt Lake Stadium, pictures and videos in the lead up to the game showed small scattered groups of supporters showing up. And once the match was underway it became clear that a large portion of the stands, especially the ones behind the goalposts, were going to remain nearly empty.
The low attendance at this Kolkata Derby is a direct indictment of the way officials and corporate investors at both clubs have failed to honour the clubs' identity and their fanbase; turning the biggest rivalry in Asia into a lukewarm affair. It has also delivered a reminder to the Indian football authorities that true passion and loyalty can't be bought or manufactured with a marketing budget; they must be earned by gaining the fans' trust.