An unhappy investor, players without pay, emotions and a timely intervention by the West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee – one of India’s oldest football teams East Bengal took a long and winding route to the glamourous world of the Indian Super League, which in their seventh year in 2020 was only too happy to welcome one of world football’s oldest rivalries.
The transition for East Bengal was far from smooth and anything but what they would have wanted to deal with in their 100th year of existence.
The Unhappy Marriage
When the Bangalore--based Quess Corp pulled the plug in a hurry in April this year citing financial constraints, the club was left in a soup.
The dreams of ISL seemed distant with no sponsors and any hopes of celebrating the centenary year were fast disappearing.
The following months of the summer saw plenty of turmoil as miffed players and officials from the red and gold brigade took their former investors to task over unpaid dues. The All India Football Federation and the Football Players’ Association of India stepped in to douse the fire.
Quess and East Bengal had entered into a partnership in 2018 and had almost made the jump to the ISL in 2019 before a series of meetings resulted in a stalemate, causing unhappy scenes in the boardrooms of the Maidan club. And what did not help matters was that by January 2020, arch-rivals Mohun Bagan had announced their new avatar and entry into the ISL with ATK.
The club, born originally out of an ethnic rivalry in 1920, rose rapidly and withstood many a squall including an attempt by the state government to change the club’s name a few years after the partition of the country.
Fast forward to 2020 and even as the fanbase’s mood remained glum with the coronavirus pandemic and the situation with their favourite football team, it was the West Bengal government that bailed them out.
In stepped Shree Cement Limited in September with a deal that allowed the club management to deal with the sporting rights.
"This was made possible because of Mamata ji. If at all we have to give credit, it's her," Bangur had told PTI from Dubai. "At the very beginning, she had made it clear (that East Bengal will play this year). Mamata ji's words carry a lot of weight and we did not look back (in forming a venture with EB)."
A few days later, the bid papers were in and less than a fortnight later, on 27 September, East Bengal became part of the ISL. Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) chairperson Nita Ambani welcomed the historical club to the Indian top-tier.
"It is such a happy and proud moment for ISL as we welcome East Bengal FC and their millions of fans into the League. The inclusion of both legacy clubs, i.e. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (now ATK Mohun Bagan) opens limitless possibilities for Indian football, especially for talent development in the state," she said.
A New Chapter
Within the next two weeks, East Bengal made another big splash when they appointed former Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler as their manager. The Englishman walked in on the back of little in terms of experience but with a fantastic playing record.
Fowler was given a free hand to pick his overseas contingent as the Indian players were already there and East Bengal were up and running with just over a month to go for kick off in the ISL in Goa.
Traditionally, the number 9 in football is extremely important for scoring goals. While that has changed to some degree over the years, the ninth month of the club’s centenary year turned out to be quite therapeutic for the fans.
East Bengal truly woke up when September ended!
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