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East Bengal’s greatest hour: the 2003 ASEAN Cup triumph

Novy Kapadia
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Editor's Pick
9.51K   //    27 Jul 2013, 15:17 IST
File Photo of East Bengal's famous triumph courtesy the club.

File Photo of East Bengal’s famous triumph courtesy the club.

The 10th anniversary of East Bengal’s ASEAN Cup triumph in Jakarta brings back a host of memories. East Bengal scripted history on Saturday, July 26, 2003 when they became the first Indian club to win any officially recognised international football tournament by demolishing Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the LG ASEAN Cup final.

It was heralded as a major triumph as BEC Tero were finalists in the inaugural (2002-03) AFC Champions League and had defeated East Bengal 1-0 in this tournament’s first league match. The Geloran Senayan stadium was again a happy hunting ground for Indian football. At this same venue, India had won the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games gold medal, beating South Korea 2-1 in the final.

The 2003-04 season was the best of times and most frustrating of times for East Bengal. The season started with a flourish when East Bengal won the LG ASEAN Cup in July, displaying captivating, free-flowing football. They were a well organised team, with adequate bench strength.

But on their return to India there was an inexplicable slump, which is still difficult to explain. Oozing with confidence, this star-studded Kolkata team was expected to dominate national domestic tournaments. However in the next few months from August to November, they underperformed in three tournaments on the trot.

In the Federation Cup quarterfinals, Vasco (Goa) upset them 1-0, with an 85th minute goal by Sushant Mathews.  Another Goan club Salgaocar proved to be their nemesis in the Durand final. In the IFA Shield final, they lost on penalties to rivals Mohun Bagan.

The way in which East Bengal had won the 2003 LG ASEAN Cup tournament, nobody predicted their sudden slump. In the Jakarta final, East Bengal’s goal scorers were Mike Okoro at the half hour mark, Bhaichung Bhutia 49th minute and Alvito D’Cunha, 69th minute.

Alvito’s stunning goal with his weaker foot a rasping, low right footer was the turning point in the match. Till then BEC Tero Sasana had piled on the pressure and mid-fielder Panai Kangapan had reduced the margin in the 55th minute. However Alvito’s wonder strike left BEC Taro Sasana subdued.

East Bengal’s team in the final (3-5-2 formation): Sandip Nandy, Sur Kumar Singh, M. Suresh, Deepak Mondal (S. Malsawmtulunga), Suley Musah (Captain), Sasthi Duley, Bijen Singh, Douglas D’Silva, Alvito D’Cunha, Bhaichung Bhutia and Mike Okoro.

Kingfisher East Bengal received $50,000 for their success in the ASEAN Club championships.

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On their way to the ASEAN Club Cup title East Bengal had trashed Armed Forces F.C. Philippines 6-0 (Bhaichung scored all six goals, the first Indian to achieve a double hat-trick in international football). They next beat Indonesia’s top two clubs Persita Tangerang 2-1 in the quarterfinal and Petrokimia Putra (1-1) and 7-6 in sudden death penalties in the semi-final.

The man behind the historic triumph: Subhash Bhowmick. (File Photo)

Many positives emerged from these victories. The ASEAN Cup triumph had a double benefit for football in India. It revived the mass hysteria in Kolkata for football (about 15,000 delirious East Bengal fans gathered at the international airport to welcome their team’s return from Jakarta) and foreign clubs sought Indian players.

Baichung Bhutia went on loan for two months (August 15 – October 15) to Malaysian league champions Perek F.C. Besides paying Bhaichung, the Malaysian club also gave East Bengal $10,000 as compensation.

Thailand league champions BEC Tero Sassana tried to procure the services of young defender Sur Kumar Singh and striker Mike Okoro. Mahesh Gawli, M. Suresh and goalkeeper Sandip Nandy were snapped up next season by Mahindra United on lucrative salaries. Thus East Bengal’s 2003 ASEAN Cup triumph heralded the start of big money transfers in Indian football.

Subash Bhowmick’s meticulous planning and vision helped East Bengal win the 2003 ASEAN Cup. The club officials allowed their coach a free hand in selection of players to strengthen the squad. Internationals, Bhaichung Bhutia, Mahesh Gawli, Debjit Ghosh, Sur Kumar Singh, Bijen Singh and Raman Vijayan were recruited at the start of the season. Most of the previous year’s squad, which had won five major tournaments including National Football League (NFL) and Durand Cup, were retained.

Like professional clubs in Europe/Japan/S.Korea, East Bengal emphasised on pre-season training to improve fitness levels. The players stayed in a five-star hotel, with access to a gymnasium and sauna baths for six weeks. The rigorous training by the South African trainer Kevin Jackson made the 2003 East Bengal squad the fittest ever football team in India.
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Novy Kapadia
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Besides teaching, research and administrative work for the University of Delhi, Novy Kapadia is a reputed sports journalist, columnist and recognized as India’s leading football expert and commentator. He is a renowned commentator, having covered several World cup football tournaments, World Cup hockey tournaments, Champions trophy in Hockey, European Football Championships, Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, SAFF Championships, SAF Games and all major domestic football tournaments since 1980. He has also written seven books on sports, primarily concentrating on Indian football. He was The Delhi based sports correspondent for The Telegraph, and Sportsworld magazine, from 1982--2005 His articles have also appeared in The Asian Age, India Today, Business Standard, Economic Times, India Abroad, Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle, Navbaharat Times, and Rashtriya Sahara amongst others. Novy is consultant to the Limca Book of Records, from 1990 onwards Novy is the Editor of the Durand Journal—India’s most comprehensive and only detailed football journal, since 1983. Football columnist of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle since 2006. Sports writer for Kindle Magazine and Tabla newspaper (NRI newspaper from Singapore) since 2010. Novy Kapadia was the winner of Wills Award for Excellence in Sports Journalism in 1986 for his article "The Other Side of the Medal" published in Business Standard newspaper, October 1984 and later in The Telegraph newspaper. This was the first time this award was instituted in India. Worked as a commentator and analyst for ESPN, ZEE Sports, Star Sports, Ten Sports, Doordarshan, All India Radio, NDTV, CNN-IBN, Headlines Today and several other TV channels.
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