ATK should lead with Mohun Bagan post merger, preserve their legacy: Bhaichung Bhutia

Bhaichung Bhutia during his East Bengal stint. "Here (in Kolkata), Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have name, fans and the legacy. That has to be preserved," he said. Bhaskar Paul/The India Today Group/Getty Images

Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia has called on Indian Super League (ISL) champions ATK to lead with the Mohun Bagan brand when the clubs merge on June 1 and compete in the 2020-21 season. As of now, the merged entity is slated to be called ATK-MB. With Bagan being declared as the I-League champions for the unfinished 2019-20 season, the team is also eligible for the group stages of the AFC Cup next year.

"ATK have bought in maximum shares in Mohun Bagan because of their history, legacy and fan following across the world. Otherwise, they have no asset," Bhutia told the ISL Instagram handle on a live chat on Saturday evening. "Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have name, fans and the legacy. That has to be preserved. I still think it has to be Mohun Bagan-ATK, the colour should be maroon and green, and the jersey should stay the same."

Bhutia revealed that as an advisor to ATK in their second ISL season in 2015-16, he had initiated talks between the club's management and Bagan for a possible takeover. He stressed that the biggest challenge for ATK, right from the start, was to establish an identity and fan following in a city which already had years of support history, almost split directly between Bagan and East Bengal.

"These are not clubs, this is their identity. You are either born East Bengal or Mohun Bagan," said Bhutia, who represented both clubs in successful spells. "When these two clubs play, it is prestige and identity. "I feel sorry for ATK. It's difficult for ATK to get them [fans] on their side."

Bhutia also voiced his support for coach Igor Stimac's recent call for inclusion of footballers of Indian origin in the national team. "It's important for the national team to get results, because every time you do not perform, the interest for the game also goes down," Bhutia said.

He further revealed that during former coach Bob Houghton's stint, Michael Chopra -- then having just played for Newcastle United and soon on his way to Cardiff City -- had joined the India camp in Dubai briefly. Indian government regulations prevent citizens from holding dual nationality, something that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has tried to work around in the past, and is nudging the central government again in recent weeks. "In the longer run, it will benefit, because more kids will take interest and start playing."

Bhutia felt that while I-League and lower divisions could benefit from reducing the number of foreign players, he would prefer the ISL to have upto five foreigners in their starting XI for some more time. "It is important for ISL to have good-quality football as well," he said. He added that younger Indian footballers would have to earn their stripes and not wait for opportunities to come to them. "[In the] I-League, 3+1 [three foreign players, plus one from an AFC nation] is right, because then more Indian players get opportunities and can get noticed by richer clubs. Maybe the quality might go down if ISL goes down to four foreigners."

Bhutia, who played for Bury FC in England as well as in Malaysia with FC Perak, also advised younger Indian players to look beyond avenues like England, Italy and Spain to improve as players. "I think for you to be playing abroad, the national team has to perform. Your team has to be recognised, if not in the world, then in Asia," he said. "If the national team starts playing at least in the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup, you will see more recognition. You can also target Qatar, China, Japan, Korea and UAE, which have a good standard. If you can play in Europe, well and good, but you can also target leagues which are at a higher standard."