Kolkata, Nov 27: The multi-crore rupee Saradha scam has not spared even Kolkata's century-old football clubs. The bank accounts of the top clubs are frozen, some of their top officials are behind bars, threatening the very existence of the sport in this soccer-crazy megapolis.
Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting have been household names for generations and today they seemingly are victims of greed of a coterie of "unscrupulous elements".
Taking over the Saradha scam probe following a Supreme Court directive, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) made its first arrest in West Bengal in the form of East Bengal executive committee member Debabrata Sarkar.
Behind bars since August, Sarkar stands accused of extorting crores of rupees from Saradha Group promoter and alleged scam kingpin Sudipta Sen, by assuring him protection from market regulator SEBI and the RBI.
Sarkar is also alleged to be instrumental in getting Saradha as a co-sponsor for East Bengal. The tainted company, incidentally, also co-sponsored arch rivals Mohun Bagan.
Last week, the CBI nabbed Mohun Bagan assistant general secretary and Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member Srinjoy Bose.
On the other hand, the Enforcement Directorate sealed the bank accounts of both the clubs and has been repeatedly grilling their officials about their sponsorship deals with the discredited group.
However, though the two clubs' request for de-freezing their bank accounts, in view of the severe financial crunch they were facing, was flatly rejected, they have been allowed to open new accounts instead.
"Now we can at least pay the salaries of the players," said East Bengal president Pranab Das Gupta, who claimed the money received from the Saradha Group was not illegal but only part of the sponsorship deal.
The ED has made it clear that once an account is locked, it could not be reopened till the investigation was over.
The 123-year-old Mohammedan Sporting recently announced it would temporarily close down its football wing following financial difficulties. However, club president Sultan Ahmed blamed the administrators for the crisis.
"The blame goes entirely to AIFF and various club officials. The Federation never did much to raise the profile of the game which steadily allowed cricket take away the sponsors.
"With not many people there to put in money, you are bound to get unscrupulous elements like chit fund companies which made their way to Kolkata football thanks to the greed of some officials of various clubs," Ahmed told IANS.
Ahmed, whose club will not be participating in the I-League second division this season (2014-15) because of lack of sponsors, said with the central agencies bringing sponsorship deals under the scanner, corporates feel apprehensive. Not many are willing to invest in the club.
"I'm hopeful football will eventually come out from this. But there is little doubt the Maidan (Kolkata's green lung and sporting hub) is going through its worst crisis. The need is to fight in unison and save Kolkata from becoming irrelevant in football," said Ahmed.
Another club hit big by the chit fund muddle is erstwhile Prayag United, now called United SC after they lost their title sponsor Prayag Group when it came under the SEBI's radar for running a deposit-seeking business. Other similar companies like Rose Valley, MPS Group and the Pailan Group, financially associated with Kolkata football, are also under the glare for launching allegedly unauthorised investment fund collecting schemes.
The advent of the star-studded Indian Super League (ISL) that boasts of iconic international stars has only compounded the misery of the clubs, which believe companies would be more inclined to get associated with the glamorous franchises than with traditional clubs seeped in history.
AIFF senior vice president Subrata Dutta conceded the Saradha scam had impacted the clubs, but denied any crisis.
"Obviously, there have been arrests and accounts have been frozen, but that's only an administrative problem for the clubs and not football per se," Dutta told IANS.
Dutta even called the developments as a blessing in disguise.
"Several clubs have been complaining that microfinance or chit fund companies haven't been properly honouring the sponsorship deals. But now these companies have moved out," said Dutta.
"It would be wrong to blame the Federation. The onus to attract sponsors is on the clubs, if they can't get sponsors or the required money to play game or finance logistics it's their own problem," he added.
Dutta also trashed assertions that ISL will negatively impact the I-league clubs.
"On the contrary, ISL is bringing in sponsors. Since it is only a three-month tournament, the sponsors would love to extend their association with football and join the I-League clubs," said Dutta.
Club officials insist the worst is behind them. "Now things are under control. Yes, there are problems, especially on the financial front, not only for us but other clubs as well, but they are mostly because of overzealous probe agencies," East Bengal official Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta told IANS.
Mohun Bagan's Anjan Mitra too echoed Dasgupta's views insisting "the situation was not as bad as it may seem".