LIQUOR baron Vijay Mallya, mediaman Pritish Nandy, US-based investor Purn-endu Chatterjee. Bengali pride, the axiomatic incompatibility of the hilsa with the prawn, a game called football.
Bengal soccer fans have been up in arms for some time now. Last month, the city's fabled football clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, converted their teams into companies. They got new names: United East Bengal Football Team Pvt Ltd and United Mohun Bagan Football Team Pvt Ltd. Nothing wrong in that per se, nearly everyone realises that with the ever-mounting costs, especially of acquiring players, clubs have to corporatise or perish. But how can both these clubs—whose fierce rivalry transcends sports to be an integral part of Bengal's social history—have a common partner, liquor baron Vijay Mallya's United Breweries (UB) group?
"I don't understand," says former mayor and avid football buff Kamal Basu, "how two such companies have a single owner." Artist Ganesh Pyne feels this takeover could sound the death knell of the glorious rivalry of Bengal's club football. Warns football coach Amal Dutta: "I think they (UB) will try to boost the rivalry artificially."
Now pops up out of nowhere what is called, in takeover jargon, a white knight. The unpredictable Pritish Nandy, who was last heard on a rap album. His Pritish Nandy Communications (PNC) has made a counter-offer to Mallya's for East Bengal. Purnendu Chatterjee, close to legendary investor George Soros and one of the promoters of megaproject Haldia Petrochemicals, and corporate communication consultant Tapan Chaki have tagged their names to Nandy's offer.
The deal Mallya was offering was this: Rs 2 crore to East Bengal (and another Rs 2 crore to Mohun Bagan) to fund its football team. In return, both teams would have to sport the UB logo, and the players and the teams could be used by UB to popularise its products. Now Nandy is apparently offering Rs 2.5 crore and the deal extends beyond football to cover East Bengal's other—less popular—games like cricket and hockey. Nandy is looking for a back-to-back deal with some large marketing company whose logo East Bengal players will sport.
On March 3, East Bengal's president, general secretary and assistant general secretary met Nandy and Chaki secretly at Calcutta's Taj Bengal Hotel and signed a fresh agreement. It was agreed that the club would be renamed PNC-East Bengal and the equity of Rs 2 lakh would be equally shared between PNC and East Bengal. The company will initially have a six-member board: Nandy, Chaki and Chatterjee, and East Bengal represented by its president Pranab Dasgupta, general secretary Dipak Chakrabarty and assistant general secretary Deepak (Paltu) Das. Nandy will be chairman, the club will nominate the MD, and Purnendu Chatterjee's The Chatterjee Group will name the chief financial officer.
What was the problem with Mallya? The questions that football fans were asking: would not a common saviour blunt the edge of the keenly fought battles between the two teams? For the two clubs, which are known to hijack or house-arrest players for recruiting and retaining them every year, would there not be a conflict of interest, especially when a common partner foots the bill? What about confidentiality of strategy? Does this not throw up the possibility of fixed matches?Besides, East Bengal office-bearers were having some other doubts too. Mohun Bagan president Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose is reportedly a close Mallya business associate.
Mallya, who got wind of the PNC-East Bengal agreement, rushed to Calcutta on March 4 to watch his prospective acquisitions play each other (the match ended in a goalless draw). Defending his stand of sponsoring both clubs, he said he often has more than one horse in a race. Unfortunately, this analogy could be lost on excitable football fans—to whom all this is more than mere sports. Besides, there are already rumours afloat that Mallya has made an offer of sponsorship to FC Kochin and may also try Churchill Brothers. If this is true, and these deals work out, Mallya could end up owning four of the 10 teams in the Philips National League. Many fans feel uncomfortable with that.
Significantly, the East Bengal top brass skipped Mallya's dinner after the match, and let out that they were considering terms with another party. Mallya has reportedly threatened legal action against East Bengal if it reneges on its agreement. But whichever way all this ends, with two colourful personalities like Mallya and Nandy in the fray, one can expect some fireworks.