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On Monday, players and officials of Mohun Bagan AC stepped out of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport in Kolkata to be greeted by a sea of fans in maroon and green (the club’s colours). The team which had just ended a 13-year trophy drought was cheered all the way into the city as the players soaked in the applause inside their team bus. They had finally won their maiden I-League title on Sunday, following a draw with last year’s champions Bengaluru FC at the latter’s home ground, in front of more than 21,000 people.

When Bagan started their campaign in January, they could have barely hoped for such a fairy tale ending. That they had hung on in the first division of the National Football League itself was a miracle. Three years ago, Mohun Bagan—a club with more than 125 years of history— finished tenth in the I-League. Their arch rivals, East Bengal managed to secure a more respectable third position.

Life outside the playing ground was turning sour too. Mohun Bagan’s official sponsor for the past 15 years, United Spirits Ltd (USL) controlled by Vijay Mallya was fast losing money. Its other sponsor, the Saradha Group, was caught in one of the biggest investment fund scams in the country. Reports emerged of players and coaches not getting their dues in time and fears of a shutdown were felt across fans’ circles.

As of 31 March 2012, the club (registered as a private entity with Registrar of Companies in Kolkata) carried a loss of more than 45,000 to its balance sheet. This number at the end of the next two financial years (31 March 2013 and 31 March 2014) had ballooned to 78,01,535 and 55,80,369 respectively. Mallya’s USL in the concurrent fiscals steadily brought down the sponsorship money from more than 9 lakhs (FY 2011-12), to 8.5 lakhs (FY 2012-13) and finally down to less than 7.6 lakhs (FY 2013-14).

“They (USL) stopped payment from October 2014," said Anjan Mitra, Mohun Bagan’s club secretary. “We are in deep trouble. The proper dues have not yet been given to the players and coaches."

Mitra said the board managed to meet whatever expenses they could through their own pockets.

The situation turned worse when Bagan sacked its technical director Subhas Bhowmick in December 2014, saying that he did not have the eligible qualifications for becoming the coach of a top-tier team in the I-League. Bhowmick fought back, threatening legal action as he had not been paid his dues by the club. The club’s management, however, assured that all would be settled in due time.

In the meantime, Bagan was still without a coach. And the I-League was starting in January.

Enter coach Sanjay Sen

Mohun Bagan’s directors zeroed in on Sanjay Sen, who a Press Trust of India report described as an “unheralded and low-profile coach."

Sen, 54, is described by Dhiman Sarkar, a senior sports writer for The Hindustan Times, as a “journeyman footballer" who started out as a mid-level player with Eastern Railways (he is still their employee).

Sen started out as a player for Eastern Railways in 1982 and by 1997 was the team’s coach. He continued this stint up until 2006 before taking up a similar role for the national under-16 and under-19 male squads. From 2010 to 2014, he was the coach for the Kolkata-based United Sports Club and then managed Mohammedan SC for a very short period of time. “It was just for seven days," said Sen over a phone conversation.

But he had earned his AFC ‘A’ licence for coaching by then, and was eligible to take up the space left by Bhowmick at Bagan. “I took up the job on 15 December 2014 … and won my first game on 29 December (in the Federation Cup)," Sen said.

Bagan’s triumph on Sunday heralded a flood of superlatives for the club, Sen and the return of the glory days of Bengal football.

Sarkar however was of the opinion that Bagan’s success was a combination of many things. “There’s no taking away what Sen has achieved. But credit has to be given to Subhas Bhowmick. Most of the current squad members in the club are his selection … and some by the management of course," said Sarkar. “Sony Norde (a Haitian winger) who was playing for the Bangladeshi football club Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi was brought into Mohun Bagan by Bhowmick. And that was a stroke of genius."

Norde proved to be an asset to the club and a potentially devastating force early into the league’s season.

Hanging money

Yet for all the success of the team, finances continued being difficult. As of 31 March 2014, expenses towards fees for players and coaches totaled to a little more than 92 lakhs and by early 2015, reports of players not being paid their salaries for several months started emerging . Club secretary Mitra went on record saying a club like Bagan requires at least 11 crore to function smoothly. “Now it’s about 14 crore," Mitra said over phone.

A Mint report around the same time said USL was trying to “obtain legal and regulatory opinions on how to restore its funding arrangement with the football club."

Mitra said members of the Bagan board “have started talking to the USL management to complete our contract terms. At this stage we do not want a divorce with them."

Mitra confirmed that other sponsors approached Mohun Bagan but did not disclose any names.

Coach Sen also admitted that the financial situation proved to be frustrating. “But what could we do about it? I tried to put it behind me … You know how the Calcutta press reacts to these things right? I tried my level best. The players showed tremendous character (during this period). Money is important, I’m not denying … but beyond a point you are playing for something more than that."

“This victory means a lot to the players and fans," said Sen.

The Indian Super League’s shadow

Almost immediately after Bagan claimed the league title, comparative reports of how it was losing face to the more glitzy Indian Super League (ISL) were being written.

To put things in perspective, in monetary terms, the Reliance-IMG backed ISL offers a total of 15 crore as prize money, of which 8 crore goes to the cup winners. The I-League offers only 70 lakh to its victors while the runners-up get 40 lakh. Winning an I-League match fetches a club 35,000 from the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

So is this turning out to be the football equivalent of a cash-rich Indian Premier League overshadowing the more prestigious but less-exciting Ranji Trophy? Are clubs like Mohun Bagan fearful of packing up soon?

“There’s no comparison between the ISL and I-League", coach Sanjay Sen said. “People come to watch the ISL … for Shah Rukh Khan, for the fun and dance. If you were here yesterday to see the reception we got at the airport, you would understand the difference!"

But Sen admitted that it did give an opportunity to young, starry-eyed footballers to share dressing room space with international legends like Robert Pires or Zico.

Dhiman Sarkar dismissed the idea completely: “Clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have a history behind them and are accountable to hundreds of thousands of fans. So they will never shut down the way Mahindra United or other clubs did. If there comes a situation when a club like Mohun Bagan is shutting down, our President (Pranab Mukherjee) might ensure it doesn’t happen. I’m not even kidding when I say this!"

“No club has a support base like Mohun Bagan; we get the highest attendance for our matches," Anjan Mitra said. “ISL has the backing of Reliance-IMG. The day Reliance-IMG loses interest in the game, ISL will stop. But I-League will go on forever!"

That may well be wishful thinking if the ISL continues to grab eyeballs and television ratings.

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