Football: ISL in expansion mode but Mohun Bagan, East Bengal to sit out

Indian Super League (ISL) wants to include three more teams, but Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have decided not to take part because of their financial woes


File photo of a match between Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC. Photo: HT
File photo of a match between Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC. Photo: HT

Kolkata: The organizers of the Indian Super League (ISL) are looking to expand the annual football tournament by including as many as three more teams, but the two most popular clubs in the country, Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, have decided not to take part because of their financial woes.

JSW Group-backed Bengaluru Football Club is weighing the opportunity to get into ISL, but a spokesperson for the professionally managed three-year old club said this isn’t the first time bid documents had been collected, and that no decision had yet been taken.

Football Sports Development Ltd (FSDL)—a firm founded in 2013 jointly by Reliance Industries Ltd and International Management Group to run ISL—last week invited bids from several cities—which surprisingly included Kolkata—to field up to three new teams for the fourth edition of the annual tournament to be held later this year.

Kolkata is already represented in the league through Atletico de Kolkata, which is majority owned by industrialist Sanjiv Goenka’s eponymous group. Even so, FSDL said teams from Kolkata could bid; but if they won, they would have to hold their home matches outside the city for the next two years.

The statutes of ISL allow one team per city, and no other city which is already represented in the league has been invited to bid for inclusion from the fourth edition. This clearly indicates that FSDL wants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to take part in ISL, said Utpal Ganguli, secretary of the Indian Football Association (IFA).

The aim is to establish ISL as the “country’s number one” league and so it is important to include clubs such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, said Ganguli, whose IFA is the administrator for football in West Bengal. But neither has the resources to field a team strong enough to play in ISL.

Even the slightly better off between them, East Bengal, cannot afford an ISL team, said the club’s assistant general secretary Santi Ranjan Dasgupta. “And there is no question of representing any city other than Kolkata,” he said.

Mohun Bagan, which does not have a permanent sponsor since United Spirits Ltd stopped backing it in November 2014, has the same sticking point. The club’s general secretary Anjan Mitra said it was inconceivable that Mohun Bagan will not represent Kolkata.

Running an ISL team requires a purse of at least Rs40 crore a year, according to the co-owner of one of the eight sides, who did not wish to be identified. “Half of that amount goes in building the team and at least Rs10 crore more for logistics,” said this person. “That apart, you have to pay an annual fee, which is determined by your initial bid.”

Both Dasgupta and Mitra said their clubs will continue to play in the I-League, which is recognized by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) as the representative league for the country.

But as the competition intensifies and ISL threatens to seize the official recognition of being the premier league, the two heavyweights from Kolkata are increasingly feeling marginalized. Under pressure from these two clubs and the Aizawl Football Club, which won the 2017 I-League, AIFF decided earlier this month not to merge the two leagues for the next few years.

The problem is these clubs are struggling to recruit and retain talent, and merging the two leagues wasn’t a solution, said Sunanda Dhar, chief executive officer of I-League. “They would have still been struggling,” he said.

For clubs such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, it is difficult to compete with ISL teams which have strong corporate backing, according to Dhar. For them, Aizawl Football Club is a “great example”—it won the I-League “without a single star”, said Dhar, adding that these clubs should scout for talent at the grassroots.

Meanwhile, the eight ISL sides are impressed with the proposal to include more teams. “More teams would mean more matches and hence more opportunity to connect with our fans,” said Utsav Parekh, a businessman who owns a minority stake in Atletico de Kolkata. However, it is too early to assess the gains in terms of business, he added.

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