East Bengal‘ s Triumph in the 2003 ASEAN Cup remains one of the most memorable moments of India Football in recent times. On the tenth anniversary of the win, TheHardTackle rewinds the clock and relives the moment of glory.
When a primarily left footed player scores a stunner with his right foot, it is special. When the most famous footballer of the country, who has had an indifferent season post his return from the foreign shores, stamps his authority on a prestigious tournament, it is special. When a coach who doesn’t have a coaching diploma starts getting the best out of his team, it is special. When the rank outsiders become Champions, it is special.
Indeed it was special moment ten years ago when East Bengal was crowned the champions of ASEAN Cup 2003. The Kolkata giants had defeated BEC Tero Sasana, one of the pre-tournament favorites, in the final. In fact BEC Tero Sasana had beaten East Bengal in the opening fixture of the group engagement but in all sincerity the East Bengal team they faced in the finals was very different form the one they had faced in the group stages. It would be apt to term the great victory as “the moment” of Indian Football in recent times, because a team from India had finally won an officially recognized international tournament after a long time.
Looking back at the triumph one cannot ignore destiny, maybe East Bengal had this victory thrust upon them, what else could explain an Indian team being invited to participate in an ASEAN sporting event given the fact that India isn’t a part of ASEAN. It wasn’t a mere coincidence that the victory came at the Geloran Senayan stadium, it was on this very stadium that the Indian team had won the 1962 Asian Games Gold Medal. East Bengal had a star studded squad that season and had been performing decently in the national stage but even their strongest admirers wouldn’t have predicted such a monumental triumph.
Baichung Bhutia had returned from his stint at Bury FC in England a year back and to the dismay of East Bengal fans and delight of Mohun Bagan fans, he had signed on the dotted line for the Mariners. However Baichung possibly endured one of the worst seasons of his career, as he was plagued by injury and could never give his best at the club. In fact such was the irony that he was not even a part of the Bagan team that won the All Airlines Gold Cup. Bhutia made the 2003 ASEAN Cup practically his own as he ] scored five goals in a match against the Philippine Army FC and finished as the top scorer in the tournament. In-fact he was the man of the match in the final as well. He also garnered a lot of interests from other clubs in the region and he eventually signed on loan from August to October for Perak FA in the Malaysian Championship. The loan arrangement was of great importance as East Bengal was paid $10,000 as compensation, something seen rarely in Indian Football.
There were other heroes in the triumph as well, Alvito D Cunha, still a part of the current East Bengal squad, scored the fantastic third goal with his lesser known right foot to guarantee the Championship for the Lal-Hould brigade. Mike Okoro , who opened the scoring in the final and had an impressive tournament though he managed only one goal. It is interesting to note that in most of the matches including the final East Bengal had deployed a 3-5-2 formation, while that gave East Bengal a lot of creativity and flair in attack, there were worried about the defense. However Suleh Musah, the burly Ghanian defender who was also the captain and Sandeep Nandy in goal had other ideas as they put in a string of inspiring performances to make sure the defense did stand tall.
There were other factors too, like the six week rigorous training for the footballers by Subhash Bhowmick with the help of Kevin Jackson (South African physical trainer). Bhowmick was widely criticized by certain sections of the media, fans and club officials for unwarranted expenses for the camp, however that proved to be the key as East Bengal survived a marathon encounter in the semifinals against Petrokimia Putra (now Gresik United) to win 7-6 on penalties and were back again after a day’s rest for the finals. By all yardsticks the 2003 ASEAN Cup squad has to rank as one of the fittest East Bengal squad the nation has seen in a long time.
Another interesting story is that of Debjit Ghosh, who suffered a near fatal collision in the quarter finals against Persita Tangerang on July 21, 2003. Everybody feared that the worst of tragedies on a football field would come true after that collision, however Douglas D’ Silva’s mouth to mouth respiration and the efforts of the then team physician Shanti Ranjan Dasgupta saved Debjit on that day. According to some of Debjit’s team-mates, the incident acted as a catalyst and motivated them to give their best.
It’s another story that post the triumph, considered as a windfall for East Bengal and Indian football, the team couldn’t live up to the expectations. There are various theories suggested behind it but the most relevant is that the team couldn’t be kept together for long. Baichung left for a loan spell in Malaysia. Surkumar Singh and Mike Okoro signed lucrative deals with other Indian clubs though it is believed that they had been approached by BEC Tero Sasana and others foreign clubs.
The ASEAN victory till date remains one of the best by an Indian club in an international competition but there might be room for an encore as East Bengal are in the quarter finals of the AFC Cup. It is a very tall task to win the AFC Cup but maybe even reaching the semi finals of the AFC Cup would be a fitting tenth anniversary celebration of the ASEAN Cup triumph. The most memorable moments of that triumph however was when 15,000 fans turned up to receive the team at the Airport – never before or after it in recent times has Indian football seen such euphoria.