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Remove ATK issue: Mohun Bagan fans protest at hockey match, ISL game attendance dwindles

DISCORD BETWEEN INVESTORS and the fans as well as the officials is fast becoming the central narrative this season at Mohun Bagan.

The club, which has been embroiled in off-the-field controversies ever since they signed KGSPL (Former owners of ATK FC) as the investors for their football team, which was controversially branded as a "merger of two clubs" in the marketing campaign although the team plays with Mohun Bagan's registration, logo, jersey colours and the 'ATK FC' entity was shut down in 2020.

Since then, most independent fan groups of Mohun Bagan had come to see KGSPL's re-branding of the football team as an appropriation or sabotage of their club's identity. This led to several protests online, in front of the Mohun Bagan club, the office of KGSPL Charman Sanjiv Goenka as well as the stadiums during matches.

The conflict between KGSPL and Mohun Bagan fans got so bad that at one point KGSPL resorted to banning Mohun Bagan flags from the stadium as a means to clamp down on protests. This led to heated confrontations between fans and police; who were themselves visibly uncomfortable with having to enforce this outlandish rule.

Subsequently, several fan clubs have decided to boycott the team's matches; leading to dwindling attendance in the arena.

Now the dispute doesn't seem to be limited between the fans and KGSPL but Mohun Bagan club officials, too, have increasingly become a part of it.

Senior officials including members of the club's Executive Committee, who won the general election with a promise to remove the 'ATK' prefix from the football team's name and safeguard Mohun Bagan's identity, seem to be running into disagreements with KGSPL in recent times over various issues.

Recently, the Committee "wrote a letter" to the KGSPL board over the team's performance in the ISL. When speaking to the media, several officials mourned the fact that their opinions were not taken seriously by the majority shareholders KGSPL. Then, former Mohun Bagan player and current official Manas Bhattacharya vented his anger at KGSPL in an explosive TV interview, complaining that coach Juan Ferrando had wanted to ban the club officials from the Mohun Bagan Ground during his closed door practice sessions. He also complained about KGSPL deciding not to play in the Calcutta Football League despite the officials wanting to take part.

Interestingly, these points of complaints aren't new issues. The Mohun Bagan Society, who hold a minority stake in the football division's holding company, have always taken a backseat in how the senior team and various youth programmes are run. When it comes to closed door practice sessions, they are also nothing new in Mohun Bagan; although the club's officials were usually not barred from the ground during them.

And as far as the CFL is concerned, Mohun Bagan General Secretary Debashish Dutta had himself defended KGSPL's decision not to play; citing some disagreement Mohun Bagan have with the IFA (West Bengal's football administrative body) over past payments that were still pending.

All of these issues have been there for the last three years but they have never become a point of contention between Mohun Bagan officials and KGSPL until now.

Meanwhile, the Mohun Bagan fans are also continuing to build pressure on KGSPL. Apart from their boycott turning the galleries nearly empty, a fan group called Mariners de Xtreme also recently held a protest at a hockey match between Mohun Bagan and Sanjiv Goenka-owned CESC Sports Club. The fans showed up with anti-KGSPL banners and chanted 'Remove ATK', 'Break the Merger' throughout the match.

The fans have been consistently demanding the removal of the ATK prefix and a stop to KGSPL's "merger" narrative. Last year, rumours emerged that KGSPL was going to do just that; re-branding the team as 'Mohun Bagan Super Giant.' They even registered domains and acquired social media accounts to reflect the new name. But ultimately it was not done; and since then the fans have grown increasingly disillusioned with KGSPL, with some of them outright demanding that Mohun Bagan should end the deal with them altogether.

The club's GS Debashish Dutta has on several occasions spoken of the need to get rid of the controversial 'ATK' brand prefix, although he has not committed to a deadline and he remains of the opinion that Mohun Bagan should continue with the KGSPL deal. In a recent media interview, he said,

"The sooner the ATK prefix gets removed, the more fortunate it will be for everyone."

Although Mohun Bagan officials have taken a stand against some of KGSPL's most controversial actions regarding Mohun Bagan - including KGSPL official Utsav Parekh outright insulting Mohun Bagan and making false claims about the club's history - they have usually kept their disagreements with their investors limited to an extent. But by the way some officials have been speaking out in public, which coincides with the fan boycotts and protests intensifying, makes for an interesting scenario in the official-supporter-investor dynamic that's playing out at the 134 year old club.

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