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