July 20 1997: When Salgaocar’s Bruno Coutinho silenced 100,000 East Bengal fans
After the high of thrashing Mohun Bagan 4-1 in the semi-finals of the 1997 Federation Cup, with a certain Bhaichung Bhutia creating history by scoring a hat-trick, East Bengal were overwhelming favourites to beat Salgaocar in the final and retain the trophy.
But one Goan, who was also an India international and one of the best players in the country, had other ideas. The man in question is former Indian captain and 2002 Arjuna Award winner Bruno Coutinho.
In the final, which took place 16 years ago on this date, Coutinho bagged a brace as Salgaocar upset East Bengal 2-1 after extra time. The striker’s ‘finger on the lips’ celebration after scoring the winner, which was a golden goal in extra time, remains one of the most iconic moments in Indian club football history.
The derby semi-final witnessed a record crowd of more than 130,000 but the atmosphere for the final was special too, with around 100,000 inside the Salt Lake Stadium. Everybody expected one result: an East Bengal win. But a solid team performance from Salgaocar along with the individual brilliance of Coutinho saw the Goan club lift their third Federation Cup title.
“It was one of the best moments of my career as we upset a strong East Bengal team in their own patch. But it was only possible because we had a great team and not because of one player. Throughout the tournament we were playing some good football and everything clicked perfectly in the final,” Coutinho told Sportskeeda.
Much like the semi-final, the staggering attendance and electrifying atmosphere made the final a bigger occasion than it already was. Even beaten Mohun Bagan coach Amal Dutta played a part, according to a report by the Indian Express stating that the wily old tactician had declared Salgaocar as the favourites which eventually riled up the East Bengal fans and ensured a massive gathering.
Reputed sports journalist Dhiman Sarkar of the Hindustan Times covered the historic final and compared the atmosphere with the one he experienced during a FIFA World Cup semi-final some years later.
“Rarely has the Salt Lake stadium seen nearly one lakh people supporting one team. I think the closest was the 2008 Federation Cup final between Mohun Bagan and Dempo (which Mohun Bagan won 1-0). The atmosphere was similar to what I experienced years later in Dortmund when Germany hosted Italy in a World Cup semi-final (2006),” Sarkar told Sportskeeda.
Sarkar though refused to compare this match with the ‘Maracanazo’ (The Maracana Blow) when hosts and favourites Brazil failed to get a draw against Uruguay that would have won them the 1950 World Cup. Sarkar rightly points out that in case of Brazil’s tragic defeat, ‘the blame tends to fall unfairly on one player (Brazil goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa)’.
But in terms of expectations among fans the match was quite similar as much like the Brazilians in 1950, East Bengal supporters felt it was their team’s right to be crowned champions that July evening.
“Well, it seemed most East Bengal fans thought that the Federation Cup was theirs for the taking. Especially after the way Mohun Bagan had been dismantled and with Bhaichung Bhutia in such menacing form,” Sarkar recalled.