East Bengal’s greatest hour: the 2003 ASEAN Cup triumph
It was Bhowmick who persuaded sponsor (Kingfisher) Vijay Mallaya to substantially increase the annual sponsorship. This extra money helped to pay Jackson his fees of $1,000 per week and gave the players improved facilities. The idea of a physical trainer occurred to Bhowmick when he saw the improved fitness of the Indian cricket team, especially that of skipper Saurav Ganguly. The national cricket team then had a South African trainer, Andrew Leipus and he recommended Kevin Jackson to Bhowmick.
Under Jackson’s guidance East Bengal’s approach and preparations for the 2003-04 season had been the best ever by an Indian club side. They set a trend and soon other clubs including rivals Mohun Bagan invested in physical trainers and high quality facilities. Every club in the I-League has since emulated East Bengal and hired specialised physical trainers. So Bhowmick was quite clairvoyant in hiring Kevin Jackson.
So what went wrong for the next six months with this star-studded team? A combination of factors led to dismal results. The Federation Cup was held in the monsoon months in Kolkata that year. The matches in August were played on slushy, muddy surfaces on which buffaloes would fear to tread.
Bhowmick felt that his team of superstars could suffer injuries and it was not possible to play attacking football on such surfaces. He requested the club management to skip this tournament or at most field a second string team. They did not agree.
In their opening encounter, East Bengal routed HAL Bangalore 5-0 but then succumbed to an ultra defensive Vasco 0-1. Vasco scored in one of their rare counter attacks and East Bengal despite playing with four forwards in the closing minutes could not equalise. It was an upset of a huge magnitude. The recent ASEN Cup champions being humbled by a not very strong club from Goa, was like Senegal beating holders France 1-0 in their opening match of the 2002 World Cup.
Acrimony between Bhowmick and the club management increased after this tournament. Next up was the IFA Shield in September 2003. In the second semi-final on Sept. 26, their midfield kingpin the Brazilian Douglas D’Silva got a second yellow card and was ruled out for the final. Without Douglas East Bengal stumbled against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan. The match ended in a goalless draw but Bagan won the penalty shoot-out 5-3 with Prasanta Dora saving M. Suresh’s angled penalty kick.
In early November 2003, East Bengal reached the Durand final. The closely fought battle with Salgaocar ended in a 1-1 draw. Again East Bengal faltered in the penalty shoot -out with ace striker Mike Okoro squandering his kick. Salgaocar won on penalties 4-3 and overall 5-4.
Again Bhowmick and his team were not very willing to play in India’s oldest tournament. Bhowmick wanted the club management to expand their horizons and compete in international tournaments in Asia. After their ASEAN Cup success East Bengal received several invitations to participate but declined them because of domestic commitments. Bhowmick’s ideas were laudable but the club management remained conservative.
The only domestic title East Bengal won in 2003 was the Kolkata league. The play-off final with Mohun Bagan on November 2, ended in a 1-1 draw. The teams were tied 3-3 in the penalty shoot-out. However East Bengal prevailed 2-1 in the sudden death.
Injuries and complacency affected East Bengal at the start of their 8th ONGC NFL campaign. They procured just two points from their first three matches, losing to Salgaocar and drawing with Vasco and JCT Mills, Phagwara. Their first win came in the fourth round, an injury-time goal by Baichung enabled them pip Churchill Brothers 2-1.
But then Bhowmick played a master-stroke. With Mike Okoro injury-prone, he bought another classy foreign striker, the Brazilian Cristiano Junior. The late Cristiano gelled perfectly with Baichung and East Bengal once again discovered their Midas touch. They became the first club to win back-to-back national football league titles. They won the twelve team league convincingly finishing four points ahead of runners-up Dempo.
In early 2004, East Bengal again continued their domination of South East Asian clubs. They beat Geylang United (Singapore), Negri Sembilan (Malayasia) and Island FC Maldives to comfortably qualify for the quarter finals of the inaugural AFC Cup.
So for East Bengal the 2003-04 started with a flourish and ended with bang, despite several hiccups on the way. I had the privilege of doing commentary of East Bengal’s matches in the ASEAN Cup and the quality of football they displayed in the final has remained unsurpassed. For many of us it seemed that Indian football had at last got over the hump. But it was yet another false dawn. The quality of football produced by East Bengal in July 2003 at the ASEAN Cup now seems like a midsummer night’s dream long, long ago.