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National football champs Mohun Bagan faces jinxed deal with UB Group

first_imgThis season the venerable Mohun Bagan club of Kolkata enjoyed many triumphs on the football field: it won the Federation Cup and followed it up with the top spot in the National Football League to emerge as the best team in the country. But celebrations and activities at the club,This season the venerable Mohun Bagan club of Kolkata enjoyed many triumphs on the football field: it won the Federation Cup and followed it up with the top spot in the National Football League to emerge as the best team in the country. But celebrations and activities at the club have suddenly come to a standstill.Even though it is India’s national champion side, Mohun Bagan will not be participating in an event designed for Asia’s champion club sides, the Asian Football Confederation Champions League.”Our side won’t play until the cases against us are withdrawn.”Anjan Mitra, General Secretary, Mohun BaganThe reason: Mohun Bagan is unable to sign up players for the coming season due to internal wranglings and is, therefore, incapable of fielding a team. If the problem persists, the club, an institution of Bengal’s pride ever since its barefoot players won – Lagaan style – the 1911 IFA Shield against the East Yorkshire Regiment, will be relegated to the lower divisions. For the club’s estimated eight million supporters, that will be a dishonour beyond their worst fears.The reason the club cannot line up a team at the end of a glorious season has nothing to do with money; the club is not cash-strapped, having won over Rs 50 lakh in prizes. At the heart of its dilemma is the ongoing battle for its soul following a five-year-old sponsorship deal.In the second half of May, Mohun Bagan was to have launched its costly player-signing drive but the plans ran aground when a section of its members began to push the cases they had filed earlier against the existing management for, among other things, “surrendering” the club’s “title”. The reference is to the emotive issue of the troubled joint venture with the liquor firm McDowell’s under which the name of the club was to have been changed to McDowell’s Mohun Bagan.advertisementThe JV, United Breweries Mohun Bagan Football Team (UBMBFT) Private Limited, was formed at the initiative of Vijay Mallya, promoter of McDowell’s as well as beer major United Breweries (UB), racehorse owner and now Rajya Sabha member. A section of Bagan members took the matter of the name-change to court and in May 1998 the Calcutta High Court stayed the change.DEADLOCK: Entry of Mallya (bearded) at Mohun Bagan has snowballed into a crisisFive years after the signing of the deal, the directors of McDowell’s are now running out of patience. Upset at the impasse over the name-change after having pumped in around Rs 8 crore, McDowell’s directors on the board of UBMBFT have reportedly demanded the problem be fixed before the new season begins in June.Mohun Bagan General Secretary Anjan Mitra, who is a director of UBMBFT, is now wary of dipping his hand in the joint venture’s fund for signing on players. “We must sort out the legal problem first,” he says. “No one from our side will let his boot touch the ball until the cases against us are withdrawn.”He may have calculated that in a year of the club’s blazing on-field successes, “fan pressure” on the litigant members would be enough to force them to withdraw the suits. Bagan fans mill around the club’s tent every day, screaming, “We want the team.” But Mitra’s calculation seems to have gone wrong so far.Mallya’s arrival has created uncertainty which has left fans furiousThe dissidents come from the cream of the club’s 7,500-odd regular members, many of them high court judges, top lawyers, leading doctors, captains of the state’s industries and scions of old landlord families. They think of themselves as a class apart from those associated with rivals East Bengal. So far they have been successful in stalling the Executive Committee’s decision.In the matter of bowing to sponsors’ demands, the dissidents among the Bagan “barristocray” could not have been more contrary to their arch enemies at East Bengal. UB had formed a similar joint venture with East Bengal club at the same time as Bagan.While the deal has worked out well with East Bengal, which has agreed to rename its football team, the Executive Committee of Mohun Bagan was beset with an avalanche of court cases filed by its own members. Amal Sen, a solicitor and trustee member of the club, accuses Mitra of “turning upside down the laws and rules of the club, not to speak of the values it stands for”. Already there have been two contempt and two criminal cases initiated against officials.Bones of ContentionMohun Bagan is unable to sign players for the coming season. It has had to give a prestigious Asian club championship a miss.The club is in danger of missing out on player purchases during the transfers period later this month.A dispute over a deal with the UB Group which required a name-change is cited as the reason.The UB Group has given an ultimatum: the name-change must happen by June.Dissenting members accuse the current management of violating club rules, seizing power with a bogus election.But it is not only Mohun Bagan which is in a spot. So is UB, over the increasingly difficult business of football sponsorship. McDowell’s had earlier sponsored Mohammedan Sporting in exchange for the club’s players wearing its Bagpiper logo on their jerseys.advertisementThis year, however, the majority Muslim patrons of the club complained about the association with liquor. McDowell’s had no option other than terminating its sponsorship contract with the club. Down south, the relegation of FC Kochin following its miserable performance has also destroyed McDowell’s hopes of profiting from football sponsorship.Even in the bizarre business of football, UB’s attempt to own a large share of three rival clubs was unusual and drew adverse comment. Mallya had sound commercial reasons though. While his liquor products cannot be advertised in the print media and on many television channels, they gain enough visibility on players’ jerseys, or in association with the local trophy-winning clubs.The problem with Mohun Bagan is sure to affect his investments in East Bengal too. If the Mohun Bagan deal comes unstuck, Mallya must mix his business with something other than football.The deadlock appears unbreakable now but as the beginning of the new football season in June draws close, temperatures on the maidans are only bound to rise.last_img read more