It was late, around 1:30 am in Kolkata. East Bengal had won the 2003 Asean Cup and Alvito D’Cunha vividly remembers the moment as the team returned from Indonesia.
Most of the players were tired and waiting to get to their hotel.
But a rousing reception from more than 10,000 fans gathered at the airport stunned them all. On the bus ride from the airport, D’Cunha saw scores of fans on streets waving the East Bengal and Indian flags. He had never witnessed such a sight in his career.
“Our sleep and tiredness vanished seeing all the arrangement done for us, the moment we landed at the airport,” D’Cunha told Scroll.in. “There was also a big stage formed for us at the airport. The support we received was unbelievable. I can never forget it.”
It was on July 26, 2003 that history was made when East Bengal scripted one of the greatest victories in Indian football by winning the Asean Cup. The triumph was celebrated not just in Kolkata, but all over the country. The Red & Golds had become the first Indian club to win an officially recognised Asian football tournament.
It was not an easy achievement, given that they had beaten BEC Tero Sasana in the finals, the eventual runners-up of the 2002-’03 Asian Champions League later that year.
Even though East Bengal boasted of a star-studded squad and bagged all five titles they competed in during the 2002-’03 season, no one knew what to expect from them in Indonesia. They, however, returned home leaving a big mark in Asian club football.
“It was definitely one of the biggest victories for an Indian club playing abroad,” former East Bengal striker Bhaichung Bhutia, who emerged as the top scorer of the tournament with nine goals, told Scroll.in.
“Looking at the tournament and the quality of the opposition, it was a turning point for a lot of clubs in India. It was a huge win for Indian football, especially at club level. We were only focused on competing in India and not outside. Many clubs abroad began taking India more seriously in tournaments and that was the big change.”
The friendly tournament was originally meant for countries belonging to the Southeast Asian region but with assistance from former India coach Stephen Constantine, East Bengal coach Subhash Bhowmick coaxed sponsors LG to open up an additional slot for East Bengal, as a side from the Asian Football Confederation.
However, concerns remained within the club management, which included Vijay Mallya who was the chairman at the time, over their participation.
“Mallya was present during the player felicitation ceremony after the end of that season and when I informed him we wanted to compete at the Asean Cup, he was in disbelief,” Bhowmick told Scroll.in. “He said we wouldn’t even be able to qualify for the quarter-finals. I assured him we could win the tournament and it was our goal. We then went ahead with our preparations.”
Bhowmick not only prepared his players mentally and tactically but also ensured they were in peak physical condition. He had planned a rigorous pre-season training schedule ahead of their departure to Indonesia.
East Bengal players were lodged at a five-star hotel for a month with access to top-notch facilities, and were provided with customised diet plans and workout routines. The veteran coach even hired South African physiotherapist Kevin Jackson to ensure his players arrived at the tournament in the best shape.
“I introduced the concept of ice bath and when I did that, people began laughing at me,” Bhowmick said. “With Kevin, we calculated the Body Mass Index and controlled the body fat percentage. We introduced complex carbohydrates in players’ diets alongside fruits and salads. The boys later acknowledged the increase in their fitness levels.”
Such practices in Indian football were unheard of back in the day.
“The preparation was key,” Bhutia recalled. “The management made the tournament a top priority. Clubs in India were changing during that time in terms of professionalism, which is common now but in those days it was a big advantage.”
East Bengal was slotted in Group D alongside BEC Tero Sasana and the Philippine Army. There were nine teams in the tournament and the top two teams from each group were to qualify for the knockout stages.
The tournament didn’t start well for East Bengal. They suffered a defeat to BEC Tero Sasana in their opening match with Therdsak Chaiman’s goal making the difference. The Kolkata giants had performed as per expectations but missed chances cost them the game.
A defeat against the tournament favourites wasn’t a surprise but the fact that East Bengal lost by a narrow margin was crucial. The fighting spirit induced a sense of belief in East Bengal, which spurred them on for the remainder of the tournament.
Turnaround from opening loss
“The team played so well against BEC Tero Sasana that we were charged up despite the defeat,” Bhowmick recalled. “After playing some brilliant football against the best side, our morale was boosted. In fact, we should have won that game.”
East Bengal then rallied to thump Philippines Army 6-0 in their second match, with Bhaichung Bhutia scoring all the goals in a sensational outing.
It was a statement but the road to the finals was no cakewalk.
East Bengal found themselves under pressure against Indonesian club Perista Tangerang in the quarter-finals after a controversial penalty had cancelled out Bhutia’s opener. The opposition threatened to stage a comeback before substitute Bijen Singh’s header sealed a semi-final spot.
The Indian unit beat Indonesian side, Petrokimia Putra, to reach the finals but progressed only by the skin of their teeth with 10 men. After Mahesh Gawli was sent off in the 88th minute, East Bengal displayed nerves of steel to see out the game in extra-time before winning 6-7 on penalities.
It was deja vu for Bhowmick’s men, with the final set to be a rematch of their tournament opener. BEC Tero Sasana midfielder Chaiman, one of the best players in Southeast Asia at the time, was in the form of his life, scoring in every match en route the final.
Nullifying Chaiman’s threat was going to be an uphill task for East Bengal, who were missing two of their first-choice defenders. Apart from Gawli, Debjit Ghosh was sidelined for the big game after failing to recover from a horrific head injury suffered in the quarter-finals.
“Bhowmick never gave up,” D’Cunha said.
“Before the finals, he said: ‘I have players in all positions available except one. Who can play?’ Sasthi [Duley] raised his hand up without even knowing the role. Bhowmick asked him, ‘Can you stop Chaiman?’ Sasthi said yes and took the responsibility to mark Chaiman. Coach told Sasthi to tell him after the game, ‘I am better than Chaiman.’ Sasthi later outplayed him that game. This is the kind of motivation Bhowmick provided us.”
East Bengal started strong, opening the scoring through Mike Okoro before Bhutia doubled the lead soon after the first half, despite the Indian side conceding possession.
BEC Tero Sasana continued to mount pressure in search of a goal but D’Cunha, who set up the opener, put the game to bed after the hour-mark cutting inside on his weaker right foot and bending his shot into the far corner.
“Scoring in the final with my right foot is my best memory of the tournament,” D’Cunha said.“That goal was crucial. We were up by two goals but the match could go either way as it was an open contest. There was relief after I scored.”
East Bengal’s stunning triumph was a shot in the arm for Indian football. It put India on the Asia map and top clubs from the continent began taking interest in Indian players. Bhutia later earned a two-month loan move to Malaysian champions Perek FC, while a few other Indian players were also on the radar of Asian clubs.
“Back then, everyone criticised Indian clubs. No one gave us due credit,” D’Cunha said. “That win set an example for Indian clubs that we can be one of the best in Asia.”
Since then, Indian teams have largely under-performed in Asian competitions making East Bengal’s triumph an even more momentous feat.