While ATK Mohun Bagan won the 2022/23 Indian Super League (ISL), East Bengal, the other of the two renowned 'Kolkata Giants,' which claims to have 45 million fans – the largest in Asia for an Indian club – and once called itself 'India’s Real Madrid', is in total dumps.
The fans are justifiably worried.
In the recently concluded edition of ISL, the club – whose players wear bright red and golden jerseys – lost 13 out of 20 matches. In an 11-team team, they could only manage a ninth-place finish. To make matters worse, they also have lost all of the last eight Kolkata Derby clashes, against arch-rivals, ATK Mohun Bagan.
“This is our facepalm moment, even the Gods cannot help us,” says Rajesh Chaudhuri, the great-grandson of Suresh Chandra Roy Chowdhury who started the club in Calcutta (not Kolkata then) with his family's cash and even went to England to buy the red and golden jerseys.
“The club is running on vapour, this is just a bloody shame that we are losing almost every match. Do not know what we have done to deserve such humiliation,” Chaudhuri said in an interview.
“I hope the fans will come forward and do something for the club,” wrote Chaudhuri.
But will it work? Sports cognoscenti in Kolkata said there are very few chances of fans responding to such calls to save the club because no one - realistically knows - what ails the club, its managers, players and coaches.
Frustration Among Fans Reach Alarming Levels
“The club has a sponsor, so it is clear it does not need any cash. And it has a team which has a top coach and his assistants and players. We need to radically change the team. Top club officials and the sponsor do not see eye to eye,” says Dipanjan Roy, a diehard fan of the club.
He says the spate of defeat has made him forget East Bengal’s iconic 5-0 victory over Mohun Bagan in 1975 in the finals of the IFA Shield in Kolkata. “Once it was a matter of pride for us but now if we talk about that 1975 victory, everyone starts laughing. It was 47 years ago. I want to know if East Bengal has a future.”
The club’s top coach Stephen Constantine, who once coached India and also the national selections of Nepal, Rwanda, Malawi, and Jamaica, has offered no comments, except offering some casual remarks like defeats are a part of life for any football team. “Even Manchester United conceded seven goals against Liverpool. We need to make efforts to regroup and fight back,” he told a group of boisterous fans who accosted him recently at the club tent after East Bengal’s 0-2 loss to arch-rivals ATK Mohun Bagan on 25 February.
Fans took to Twitter to vent their frustrations. They said only 60,000 turning up for a derby clash in an 85,000-capacity stadium in Kolkata 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”.
The last derby was boycotted by a large number of East Bengal fans, who were protesting against the functioning of a top club official, Debabrata 'Nitu' Sarkar. East Bengal Ultras, the club’s ardent supporter group known for displaying gigantic banners, also decided against attending the match. Posters saying 'Boycott Derby', alongside graffiti, saying 'Go Back Nitu', were to be seen.
And then back in July 2021, thousands of East Bengal fans took to the streets in Kolkata to protest against Sarkar. The fans were baton-charged by cops.
Club Officials Push the Blame Towards Emami
Appeals for helping East Bengal are pouring in almost every day. But it is not helping the club. There are high rumours that the Emami group, the controlling body of the club, has developed cold feet over funding East Bengal. Officially, Emami still controls the club and their officials claim they are committed to ensuring a better performance in the next ISL
“We have repeatedly asked Emami officials for a board meeting but it has not happened. I do not know why? We need to meet; we need to talk. There are genuine concerns over the way the club is being managed. So, we need to sort out these issues,” Debabrata Sarkar, a top official of the club, said in an audio message to reporters. This reporter has a copy of that message.
Club insiders say East Bengal officials want more cash to acquire better players but Emami is not keen to splurge. Emami has not disclosed the amount spent on the club but East Bengal officials claim the amount is grossly inadequate.
But club officials cannot argue, they just do not have the numbers to take on Emami.
The Kolkata-based Emami group holds 77 per cent share, the rest held by East Bengal. In the 10-member East Bengal board, there are seven representatives from Emami and three from East Bengal. Among the East Bengal board members, there is a top Kolkata jeweler.
Sources in Kolkata say there are teething troubles between top East Bengal officials and Emami members, especially relating to funds to sign up top players for the club.
“Scratch the surface and you will realise there is no bonhomie between the two. East Bengal officials are severely handicapped on the board, they are easily outgunned, and outnumbered. The majority lies with Emami,” says a top football source in Kolkata.
“Demands for more cash for better footballers have fallen on deaf ears. The current team is a pathetic lot. East Bengal officials and fans know it but cannot do anything,” the source added.
The Many Issues With Debabrata ‘Nitu’ Sarkar
There are other issues with East Bengal officials and the bulk of them revolves around Sarkar, a very influential official of the club.
Last month, Sarkar, who has been associated with the club for over two decades, was in trouble over his alleged involvement in ponzi scams that gripped Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand and Odisha for over a decade. In the first week of February 2023, officials of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) seized Sarkar’s properties and said Sarkar was among the ‘beneficiaries’ of the Saradha Scam case.
The ED named Sarkar as one of the many people linked to being associated with the assets that were seized recently. In 2015, Sarkar was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and sent to jail for his involvement in the Saradha scam.
The CBI had claimed Sarkar had taken Rs 20 crore for East Bengal club from Saradha top official, Sudipta Sen. In return, claimed the CBI, Sarkar had promised Sen that he would sort out Sardha’s problems with the Mumbai-based Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). The market regulator had asked Sardha to wind up its operations.
Revolving Doors at the Red and Gold Tent
East Bengal has been mired in all kinds of trouble for the last couple of years.
Consider this one. Following the exit of Kingfisher, Quess Corp signed an agreement to acquire 70 per cent of East Bengal in 2018. But Quess left in 2020 following serious differences with the club management. Last year, East Bengal sold 76 per cent stake of the club to Shree Cement, a listed company owned by the Bangur family, who originally hail from Rajasthan. But serious differences emerged between the club and Shree Cement and the latter left.
The club turned to the Adani Group, but the Ahmedabad-based conglomerate backtracked after a few meetings.
The Emami group came in following the intervention of Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, but before their arrival, East Bengal general secretary Kalyan Majumdar wrote to members and anyone he could think of, anyone who had the cash and power, to help the Kolkata-based club drop Shree Cement.
By then, Shree Cement had already invested a little over Rs 55 crore in the club. The letter indicated a grave sense of helplessness that had gripped the 100 year plus-old club.
Eventually, Emami agreed to be the mainline sponsor and took a 76 per cent stake in the club. But knots within the club have still not opened up.
Former East Bengal players want the club to regain its glorious form and want teething tensions between club officials and Emami to end. “There must be a level-playing field between the two, everyone can feel the undercurrents,” says former Indian skipper and East Bengal player Prasanta Banerjee.
Investors Unhappy With Anachronistic Club Officials
Emami officials have - privately - lamented how they have been treated badly by club officials. The Emami group - despite being a majority stakeholder - does not have space in the club tent near Eden Gardens. The behaviour of East Bengal club members - claim some of the Emami officials - tantamount to someone outrightly selling a company and yet, refusing to vacate the premises.
“And this is sad because, unlike Shree Cement, we did not want to rebrand the club. So why are some members holding on to the club as if it's their fiefdom? Why can’t a corporate structure fit into the club so that it can run professionally,” an Emami official said, on the condition of anonymity.
If it is all about prestige and emotion, then East Bengal must raise cash with donations from supporters. That is not going to happen. Supporters are saying the club’s prestige can never be bought with peanuts but there is simply no cash to save the club. So, there is no option but to go with what Emami wants.
Kolkata clubs were once very popular, but no longer. No top corporate wants to invest in Kolkata clubs. And without cash, East Bengal is an artist without a canvas and paints. Worse, routine tensions with the sponsors are not good news for future investors.
“We want East Bengal to get back to winning matches. Can that happen?” asks former East Bengal defender Manoranjan Bhattacharya.
The slugfest is a big blow to the prestige of East Bengal players and supporters. Cash is important for the club. East Bengal was fined in June 2021 by FIFA, the game’s controlling body across the world, for not paying salaries to players and coaching staff.
Amid Passion but No Progress, India’s Real Madrid Is Dying a Slow Death
Many feel East Bengal’s legacy members don’t understand the new economics of football. They must understand if a company is investing cash, it is not investing to kill the product but to make it bigger & better. And if the members are so proud of their legacy, then they must hold their heads high, else die.
Senior members of the club are still very passionate about the institution, it was formed to give the immigrant population from the eastern region of Bengal a platform. These people were forced to leave their homes (now Bangladesh) during the partition of 1947.
But the veterans do not have the power to raise cash. Occasionally they sit on the club lawns and talk about good, old times when East Bengal was a real power in Indian football.
There were iconic stories of a person visiting the club for an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match after cremating his only son. Or a top fishmonger freely distributing Hilsa, a very expensive fish which is also synonymous with East Bengal after a derby win.
Now, the veterans do not have the cash but have the passion. Those who have the cash struggle between passion and control.
Stuck in the middle is East Bengal, and its fans. Perform or perish - that's the only way for the 102-year-old club now.