A shot in the arm for Indian football

IT was exactly 92 years ago that Mohun Bagan, one of the oldest clubs in India had many sit up and notice when it downed a British club, East Yorkshire Regiment, in the IFA Shield final. It is said the remembrance of that rare moment continues even today. It was appropriate then that another side, which, along with Mohun Bagan, was always considered the pride of Bengal but envy of others, should come up with something extraordinary.

IT was exactly 92 years ago that Mohun Bagan, one of the oldest clubs in India had many sit up and notice when it downed a British club, East Yorkshire Regiment, in the IFA Shield final. It is said the remembrance of that rare moment continues even today. It was appropriate then that another side, which, along with Mohun Bagan, was always considered the pride of Bengal but envy of others, should come up with something extraordinary. We are talking of East Bengal, currently the National League champion, which sent its stock soaring with a stunning title-win in the inaugural edition of the LG Cup ASEAN club football championship in Jakarta. East Bengal thus became the first Indian club to win an international tournament on foreign soil.

The victorious kingfisher East Bengal team. -- Pic. AFP-

Now nobody is suggesting that this victory over Thailand's top squad BEC Tero Sasana (to whom East Bengal lost in the group league earlier) can be compared to a title-triumph in a FIFA tournament or even the AFC champion's league, but a win in a regional meet in the Asian continent has to hold its own importance. Critics would point that a tournament success without facing the best from Korea, Japan, China and Iran cannot be a subject for much approbation but like in cricket when it does not matter whether the opposition is Bangladesh or Australia the performance cannot be undermined nor records watered down.

In a country where the level of football-craze is limited to certain areas and achievements too just few and far between, any gain is a matter of joy. If it was the national team, which brought that rare moment to savour in the LG Cup tournament in Ho Chi Minh City then it was East Bengal this time, which has certainly done the nation proud winning another LG Cup tourney. Indian football and LG seem to have an enduring association. What made East Bengal's success particularly noteworthy was that it had participated in the tournament as a special invitee based on its National League show back in India.

Not only did the club catch everyone by surprise in a region, where, by any yardstick the contemporary football standards are higher than the SAF region in which India's stock belonged, but sent several reputations take a downward curve. Whoever in Indonesia could have looked beyond the country's best sides — Persita Tangerang and Petrokimia Putra — or at best Thailand's BEC Tero Sasana, Malaysia's Perak FC and Singapore Armed Forces in the 11-team field for the final? It was this ability to conduct a coup of sorts that lent East Bengal's success a certain lustre.

In a way East Bengal's distinction is a shot in the arm for professionalism that is finding its way in India thanks to the National Football League. Seven years of the NFL have finally made one thing clear: recruiting foreign players is not enough but blending them with Indian talent is what matters. Subash Bhowmick, a shrewd forward in his playing days but etching out a name for himself in building a team, is obviously a believer in the dictum that a team's strength lay in its balance and depth in reserves. Observers noted this on the eve of the previous edition of the national league when he guided East Bengal to a title-win almost at a canter. In Jakarta too the ploy worked: Nigerians Suleh Musah and Mike Okoro as also Brazilian Douglas Silva working along with the Indian star Baichung Bhutia. How they combined and plotted provided the fairy tale finish for Bhowmick's boys and perhaps set a benchmark for the other teams in the still fledgling NFL to gear up. The title-win also brought with it $50,000 as prize money.

Still, mention has to be made of the outstanding role Bhutia had played in inspiring his colleagues into achieving what seemed initially an improbable dream. Most experienced in terms of foreign exposure — having had the benefit of soaking in the finest traditions of English FA as member of the Bury FC for three years — Bhutia showed why he could be such a tricky customer in the attack line. Scoring eight goals in all, five of them including a hat-trick coming in just one match, Bhutia deservedly was the winner of the `Golden Boot' besides being the `Man of the match' in the final for the sheer touch of class that brought up the second goal in the 3-1 defeat of the top Thai side.

More importantly Bhutia's goal had come when the Thai club was desperately coming close to nullify Okoro's first strike close to half hour. And then came the 48th minute beauty by Bhutia as he plucked the ball from a defender (Thanongsak Pajakkta) and dashed away for a one-to-one with the goalkeeper. Though momentarily losing balance, Bhutia regained his stance in a jiffy to crash a right footer and for once the Indian club looked set to grab the title in the vary historic venue (Geloran Senavan Stadium) where, in 1962, India had won its second of the two gold medals overall in Asian Games football. Alvito D'Cunha sealed the issue but not before Panai Kongpaphan had reduced the margin.

BEC Tero Sasana's Datsakorn Thonglao (middle) beats East Bengal's Suleh Musah (lying on the ground) and Wuttiya Yongant during the final. — Pic. REUTERS-

Ironically, it was to this Asia's number five team that East Bengal had lost in the very opening encounter in its campaign. Therdsak Chaiman, later adjudged the `Most Valuable Player of the Tournament' was the man who did the damage. Once bitten twice shy, East Bengal's coach Bhowmick knew where to concentrate when the two met in the title round. For once Chaiman was bottled up. Nigerian Sunday Omojola was often crowded out by the defenders and finally replaced, something that cut off a vital route to the Kolkata club end. Even in that brief phase when the Thai team threatened a come back with Kongpaphan scoring a goal, East Bengal did not lose the grip.

Bhutia set an example particularly with his blistering touch in the second game when East Bengal trounced Army FC from Philippines 6-0 to earn a quarter-final qualification. Bhutia scored five goals in a row to shatter whatever hopes the armymen had through their initial resistance. In fact the Philippine team coach Amel Fernandes had expected it to be tough for East Bengal since it was a `must win' situation after the first match loss and thought nerves would work in his team's favour. Bhutia showed the way, perked up his team-mates and convinced Bhowmick that the best was still to come.

On an alien turf and a packed stadium rooting for the home team, Persita Tangerang, East Bengal players faced their first acid test. Stiff resistance was only expected but it was a scare in the form of Debjit Ghosh's injury that shook the Kolkata team. Debjit got knocked down unconscious by international striker Zaenal Arif and had to be given mouth to mouth resuscitation, something that sent shivers into the players and the team management. Nothing untoward happened though and a hospital visit thereafter cleared Debjit but it was Bhutia who stunned the galleries with a volleyed goal. As luck would have it for East Bengal, the Singapore referee Marian Ganesham undid it before long with a `questionable' penalty for an infringement by goalkeeper Sandeep Nandy that the team thought was never there. Persita thus equalised in 10 minutes through Ilham Jayakesuma but it was left to Bijen Singh to effect the knock-out blow with a 77th minute header. It must be mentioned here that Sandeep, despite the minor set back, went on to be adjudged the `best goalkeeper' of the tournament to add to East Bengal's cup of joy.

Perak FC's Chan Kok Heng (right) tries to tackle Petrokimia Putra's Rivaldo Costa. Petrokimia Putra defeated Perak FC to take the third place. — Pic. AP-

`One gone, one more to tackle' seemed to be the refrain as East Bengal got ready to meet Indonesia's top team Petrokimia Putra in the semi-final. The Indian club was riding the crest of confidence and meeting another home side did not look as daunting. Over 5000 fans of Petrokimia had congregated in the stadium some coming from E. Java to cheer their favourite side. Things began well for Petrokimia when M. Jaezal Ichwan put it ahead early. It required another Bhutia special for East Bengal to keep intact its `surprise package' tag and what more, pave the way for the passage to the final via `sudden death'. Despite being reduced to 10 players by the 76th minute (Mahesh Gawli getting ejected with a red card), East Bengal clung on to inflict another blow to silence the local fans. Purely from the trend of play and East Bengal's willingness to dare the impossible, the Indian team had firmly established itself as a hot favourite. Confirmation came in the final and in what style, beating the Thai giant convincingly. An indifferent start to the campaign notwithstanding East Bengal covered itself with glory and miles away in Kolkata, its supporters had gone into a frenzy.

The historic moment will remain glowingly etched in Indian football history and surely like Mohun Bagan's conquest decades ago, East Bengal's deed will be long remembered.

The results (read under played, won, lost, drawn, goals for, goals against and points):

East Bengal's Douglas Silva Dos Santos (right) fights for the ball with Dwi Djoko of Petrokimia Putra in the semifinals. East Bengal won the match 8-7 through penalties. — Pic. AP-

Group A (in Gresik, Surabaya): Petrokimia Putra (Gresik, Indonesia) 1-1-0-0-2-0-3; Samart United (Cambodia) 1-0-0-1-0-2-0; Finance and Revenue (Myanmar) withdrew from the tournament.

Group B (in Gresik, Surabaya): Perak (Malaysia) 2-2-0-0-5-0-6; Singapore Armed Forces 2-0-1-1-2-4-1; DPMM FC (Brunei) 2-0-1-1-2-5-1.

Group C (in Jakarta): Persita (Tangerang, Indonesia) 2-2-0-0-7-2-6; Hoang Anh Gia Lai (Plei Ku, Vietnam) 2-1-0-1-3-3-3; Telecom and Transportation (Laos) 2-0-0-2-2-7-0.

Group D (in Jakarta): BEC Tero Sasana (Thailand) 2-2-0-0-4-0-6; East Bengal (Kolkata, India) 2-1-0-1-6-1-3; Negros Occidental FC (Philippines) 2-0-0-2-0-9-0.

Round One:

Petrokimia bt Samart United 2-0; Perak bt Singapore Armed Forces 2-0; Persita bt Hoang Anh Gia Lai 2-1; BEC Tero Sasana bt East Bengal 1-0.

Round Two:

Perak bt DPMM FC 3-0; Hoang Anh Gia Lai bt Telecom and Transportation 2-1; East Bengal bt Negros Occidental FC 6-0.

Round Three:

DPMM FC drew Singapore Armed Forces 2-2; Persita bt Telecom and Transportation 5-1; BEC Tero Sasana bt Negros Occidental FC 3-0.

Quarterfinals:

Petrokimia Putra bt Singapore Armed Forces 3-2 (after extra time); Perak bt Samart United 2-0; East Bengal bt Persita 2-1; BEC Tero Sasana bt Hoang Anh Gia Lai 2-1.

Semifinals:

East Bengal bt Petrokimia Putra 1-1 (after extra time, 8-7 on penalties); BEC Tero Sasana bt Perak 3-1.

For third place: Petrokimia Putra bt Perak 3-0.

Final: East Bengal bt BEC Tero Sasana 3-1. Top-scorer: Baichung Bhutia (East Bengal). Best goal-keeper: Sandip Nandy (East Bengal).

Best player: Therdsak Chaiman (BEC Tero Sasana).