July 26 2003: East Bengal’s historic ASEAN Cup triumph
International honours on foreign soil are a rarity for Indian football teams and if we consider the club sides, such success has only been achieved in invitational tournaments. But one such club triumph stands out above every other and in fact can be considered as one of the greatest achievements in Indian football history.
The triumph in question is the ASEAN Cup success of East Bengal with the victory in the final coming on this date, July 26, ten years ago. Unlike other success stories of Indian clubs in invitational tournaments like the Wai Wai Cup in Nepal in 1993 (won by East Bengal) or POMIS (President of Maldives Invitational Soccer) Cup 2003 (won by Mahindra United) , the standard of teams for the 2003 ASEAN Cup was quite high.
The tournament comprised the domestic winners of all the major South East Asian countries including Thailand champions BEC Tero Sasana, who before the tournament had already progressed to the final of the inaugural edition of the Asian Champions League, the top-most club competition in the continent.
India aren’t a part of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) of course, thus their domestic champions East Bengal were only entered into the competition through special invitation. India, at that point, were ranked well below most of the stronger ASEAN nations like Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Due to a ban from AFC club competitions between 2000 and 2002, Indian clubs were not used to international standards at all and thus East Bengal were only expected to make up the numbers in this 11-team competition, which was held in Indonesia although Vietnam were the original hosts.
East Bengal suffered a 1-0 defeat to BEC Tero Sasana in their opening group game but the performance deserved better. Inspired by that fighting display, the red-and-gold brigade thumped Philippines champions Army FC 6-0 with Bhaichung Bhutia scoring five. It was a three-team group, so one win was enough to set up a quarter-final clash with Indonesian league runners-up Persita Tangerang.
The Kolkata giants defeated Persita 2-1 and then conquered Indonesian champions Petrokima Putra (now Gresik United) on penalties in the semi-final. Surely the dream run would end in the final against overwhelming favourites BEC Tero Sasana. But East Bengal produced a gigantic performance to upset the Thailand club 3-1 on July 26 2003 and created history.
There were many heroes for East Bengal in that tournament but one man was the inspiration and driving force behind the whole success. That individual was the coach Subhash Bhowmick. The former India striker had guided the Kolkata club to NFL (National Football League) success the previous season but this triumph gave him legendary status.
Veteran goalkeeper Sandip Nandy, who now plays for Mohun Bagan, was East Bengal’s custodian back then and was adjudged the best goalkeeper of the tournament. Looking back, even the 38-year-old agreed that it was Bhowmick who made it all possible.
“We owe it to him (Bhowmick) completely. Any praise for him now will fall short actually. Many people might say that it was the players who did it but let’s not forget that he was the first Indian club coach to ensure such scientific preparation before the tournament. And during the competition, he raised our self belief to new heights and kept motivating us throughout. It would have been impossible to achieve this historic triumph without our coach,” Sandip told Sportskeeda.