East Bengal ends season on a high

KINGFISHER East Bengal had every reason to celebrate an extraordinary season. The Kolkata giant had a string of successes, filling up its repository with a rich harvest of records.

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

KINGFISHER East Bengal had every reason to celebrate an extraordinary season. The Kolkata giant had a string of successes, filling up its repository with a rich harvest of records. While the National team didn't do anything spectacular, the departing soccer season underlined the exploits of East Bengal, which contrived matchless feats in almost everything it participated in.

The triumphant East Bengal team. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

East Bengal made the country proud when it returned from Jakarta with the inaugural ASEAN Club Championship title in August last. This being the first in the list of records was also foremost in significance making East Bengal the first Indian club to wrest a title from foreign shores. It was, indeed, a brilliant follow-up after the National team had opened the country's dormant international account just a year before in Vietnam. The grand beginning continued till the end of the season that saw the club savouring the highest domestic honour — the National Football League — with another record to boot.

East Bengal clinched the local league honours — Calcutta Football League's Super Division — before it set its eyes on the country's premier club contest title. The 132-match fixtures — started on November 28 — of the Coca-Cola sponsored eighth edition of NFL's elite division spanned almost five and a half months in the calendar, presenting the toughest challenge for the 12 best clubs of the country vying for glory. While the Super Division title pushed its record as highest winner of the crown at home, the NFL triumph created a new mark in the national circuit as East Bengal became the first team in the nine-year-old history of the tournament to retain the title. Added to this was the fact that it also equalled Mohun Bagan's feat of winning the NFL three times.

On the flip side, all of East Bengal's splendour and dazzle in the season failed to hide the erosion creeping into the sport in the State. East Bengal's effort remained a secluded spot of brilliance in the general spectre of gloom surrounding the sport in Kolkata, which reflected in the banishment of the remaining teams of the city to the bottom of the NFL table.

This is where Goa evolved stronger, having three of its representatives, led by the runner-up Dempo, among the top six finishers. Goa also had the credit of seeing all the five teams retaining their berths for the next season. Goa and Bengal, who, together, put nine out of the 12 teams, dominated the NFL, but the tournament saw the former scoring on the administrative front. With administrative chaos overriding most of the Kolkata teams — leave aside East Bengal — the Goan outfits, managed mostly by big business institutions, worked relatively freely and focussed all their resources and ideas at doing well in the NFL.

East Bengal striker Cristiano Junior (second from left) is congratulated by his team-mates after he had scored against Vasco in their NFL match in Kolkata. -- Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

Dempo, which secured the runner-up spot in the highly competitive local league, did well, retaining its form in the NFL. Coach Armando Colaco worked up a good combination as the team secured Liberian international striker Sunday Seah from rival Salgaocar to strengthen the attack, which also had R. C. Prakash and the talented Alex Ambrose. The balance was retained in the rest of the sections with important names such as Samir Naik, and Cliffort Miranda making their own contributions later in the order.

The away win (2-0), against the automobile giant Mahindra United at Mumbai, kick-started Dempo's campaign which continued unabated with more wins both away, against JCT 2-0, and at home, against East Bengal 3-2, before it suffered a defeat in the 10th round to Mohun Bagan. To the misfortune of the Goa giant, Bagan, eager to live beyond the shadow of its star-striker Jose Barreto, who deserted the team mid-season, played the best match of the tournament on January 14. Dempo lost 0-1 to a goal by the Bagan captain Renedy Singh.

But despite the late setback, Dempo finished on top of the heap with 22 points from six wins, four draws and a loss, in the first phase. Everyone then thought of having a champion from Goa. But expectations were belied as Dempo struggled to build on the advantage and was involved in successive draws against teams such as Vasco, Salgaocar, JCT Mills, Mahindra and East Bengal, to incur a substantial deficit from which it could hardly recover. And the championship battle was over by the 20th round as East Bengal raced to an invincible seven-point lead drubbing minnows Indian Bank 3-0.

Churchill Brothers, the two-time runner-up, put up the next best show taking the fourth spot in the final analysis. Interestingly, barring the change in leadership, all other positions till the fifth spot remained similar to the ones seen in the first session. Churchill, depending on the prolific scoring abilities of the Ghanaian striker Yusuf Yakubu, won a total of 10 matches but was inconsistent to tally 36 points, while Vasco SC, which took the third spot last year, had to be content with sixth place.

East Bengal's Baichung Bhutia is ecstatic after scoring against Indian Bank. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

Vasco notching the highest number of draws — totalling 10 — played a big role in deciding the title. Dempo was the biggest victim falling to the Vasco barrier in both halves of the league. Former champion and last year's runner-up Salgaocar was a disappointment as it fell to the bottom half of the table with losses (9) overtaking its wins (7). It was joined in this section by debutant Haywards Sporting Club de Goa, which did creditably well, in finishing eighth.

Sandwiched between the Goa-Bengal rivalry were the two solitary representatives from Punjab, JCT Mills, and Maharashtra, Mahindra United. Both the teams performed with distinction. Mahindra took the third spot, while JCT finished fifth. Mahindra picked up really well in the second phase, winning six, drawing four and losing just one to finish with a final tally of 41, just four points short of Dempo. The Mumbai giant, under its English coach David Booth, was the only other club that could find a place next to East Bengal in the title count as it won the Federation Cup and followed it up with a international title, winning the invitational POMIS tournament in Maldives. Despite having a compilation of the best talents in the country such as Khalid Jamil, Jules Alberto, Shanmugam Venkatesh and James Singh, the jeepmen need to rethink their strategy in the NFL.

JCT, which finished fourth last season, brought in half of the team — including I. M. Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri and the Nigerians Stephen Abarowei and Musa Aliu — which won first NFL title in 1997 and placed them alongside a bunch of fresh recruits from the universities to form a good outfit under the charge of former National coach Sukhvinder Singh. The team did well initially but stuttered in the later stages with the injury-ridden seniors unable to give in their best.

Churchill Brothers' John Kingsley (24) manages to keep the ball in control even as Tollygunge Agragami's Awoyemi Isiaka tries to thwart his attempt in their encounter. -- Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

East Bengal, true to the club emblem, really remained the torchbearer and put up a great show in the second phase winning nine out of the 11 encounters. The team gained from the recruitment of Brazilian Cristiano Junior who joined action in the fourth round. Showing a great sense of quickness and opportunism, the two great attributes of a striker, he justifiably topped the scoring charts with 15 goals, which was a little less than half of the team's strikes. Indian captain Baichung Bhutia, struggling in the first phase, gained his touch in the latter stages scoring the highest goals — 12 — as an Indian. Bhutia and Junior together accounted for roughly 75 per cent of the team's strikes remaining the best attack combination of the tournament.

Falling into the relegation zone, Mohun Bagan cut a sorry figure with the infighting in the club administration overtaking team interest. As the events unfolded, soccer — which brought the club three NFL titles in a span of five years — was chucked off the priority list by factions of warring officials who thought politicking was the best tribute to cherish the more than a century of footballing tradition. With the team morale at the lowest ebb — compounded by the departure of a "disenchanted" Barreto in January — coach Aloke Mukhrejee could help little bettering the situation and was himself chucked out in the later stages.

Bagan somehow saved relegation with a 4-1 win over Indian Bank in the last match but could not avoid the disgrace of finishing ninth in the list of 12. In stark contrast to the mayhem in Mohun Bagan, arch-rival East Bengal remained a study in contrast with a dynamic administration backing up its astute coach Subhas Bhowmick to construct a crack outfit with best available talents. Funds were generously made available as Bhowmick broached a professional approach and sought to "condition" his team, arranging for five-star hotel accommodation and getting South African physical trainer, Kevin Jackson, to work on their fitness. The results were phenomenal.

Mohammedan Sporting, seeking to retrace the long-lost glory, emerged from a protracted exile, making a debut among the NFL's elite. But the Bagan syndrome was quick to catch up with the team and the euphoria surrounding the qualification died down fast in the face of repeated failures. Despite changing four coaches there was little success and the team was forced into relegation alongside Indian Bank, which produced the worst showing of the tournament, collecting just eight points from 22 matches.

The results Home tie for the team mentioned first):

Round I: Mohammedan Sporting lost to Mohun Bagan 0-2; Vasco SC drew with Sporting Clube de Goa 2-2; Salgaocar SC bt East Bengal Club 2-1; Mahindra United lost to Dempo SC 0-2; Indian Bank lost to JCT Mills 0-3; Churchill Brothers SC drew with Tollygunge Agragami 0-0.

Mohun Bagan's Ashim Biswas (left) fails to beat Mohammedan Sporting's defender Madhab Das and goalkeeper Gumpe Rime in their NFL match in Kolkata. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

Round II: Vasco drew with East Bengal 1-1; Mahindra United bt Mohun Bagan 2-1; Sporting Clube de Goa bt JCT Mills 4-1; Indian Bank lost to Churchill Brothers 0-1; Dempo drew with Tollygunge Agragami 1-1; Salgaocar bt Mohammedan Sporting 3-0.

Round III: JCT Mills drew with East Bengal 0-0; Salgaocar lost to Vasco 0-1; Tollygunge Agragami drew with Mohun Bagan 0-0; Mahindra United bt Mohammedan Sporting 4-3; Dempo bt Indian Bank 2-0; Churchill Brothers bt Sporting Clube de Goa 3-1.

Round IV: Mohammedan Sporting drew with Vasco Sports 0-0; JCT Mills bt Salgaocar 1-0; Mohun Bagan bt Indian Bank 3-0; Dempo Sports Club bt Sporting Clube de Goa 1-0; East Bengal bt Churchill Brothers 2-1; Tollygunge Agragami bt Mahindra United 2-1.

Round V: Mohun Bagan bt Vasco Sports Club 2-0; Mohammedan Sporting lost to Churchill Brothers 1-2; JCT Mills lost to Dempo 0-2; Indian Bank lost to Sporting Clube de Goa 2-4; East Bengal bt Tollygunge Agragami 1-0; Mahindra United bt Salgaocar 1-0.

Round VI: JCT Mills drew with Vasco 0-0; Tollygunge Agragami lost to Mohammedan Sporting 0-1; Indian Bank lost to Mahindra United 0-2; Dempo bt East Bengal 3-2; Sporting Clube de Goa drew with Mohun Bagan 2-2; Salgaocar drew with Churchill Brothers 2-2.

Round VII: Mahindra United lost to East Bengal 0-1; Indian Bank drew with Mohammedan Sporting 0-0; Salgaocar bt Mohun Bagan 1-0; Churchill Brothers lost to JCT Mills 1-2; Sporting Clube de Goa bt Tollygunge Agragami 1-0; Vasco drew with Dempo 0-0.

Round VIII: Churchill Brothers bt Mohun Bagan 1-0; Mahindra United drew with JCT Mills 0-0; Salgaocar bt Indian Bank 3-2; East Bengal Club bt Sporting Clube de Goa 2-0; Vasco drew with Tollygunge Agragami 0-0; Mohammedan Sporting lost to Dempo 0-1.

Round IX: Mohun Bagan lost to JCT Mills 0-1; Salgaocar bt Tollygunge Agragami 2-0; Mohammedan Sporting drew with Sporting Clube de Goa 1-1; Indian Bank drew with East Bengal 1-1; Mahindra United bt Vasco 3-0; Churchill Brothers SC drew with Dempo 0-0.

Round X: Mohun Bagan bt Dempo 1-0; Tollygunge Agragami lost to JCT Mills 0-2; Salgaocar lost to Sporting Clube de Goa 0-1; East Bengal bt Mohammedan Sporting 4-0; Indian Bank lost to Vasco 0-2; Churchill Brothers bt Mahindra United 1-0.

JCT Mills' goalkeeper Mohammed Mansuru effects a brilliant save off a shot taken by Mohammedan Sporting striker Syed Rahim Nabi. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

Round XI: Mohammedan Sporting bt JCT Mills 3-1; Salgaocar drew with Dempo 0-0;Vasco bt Churchill Brothers 2-1; Tollygunge Agragami bt Indian Bank 3-2; Sporting Clube de Goa lost to Mahindra United 1-2; East Bengal bt Mohun Bagan 2-1.

Round XII: Sporting Clube de Goa drew with Vasco 1-1; Tollygunge Agragami lost to Churchill Brothers 2-3; JCT Mills bt Indian Bank 3-1; Mohun Bagan drew with Mohammedan Sporting 1-1; Dempo drew with Mahindra United 2-2; East Bengal bt Salgaocar 3-1.

Round XIII: Mohammedan Sporting bt Indian Bank 1-0; JCT Mills drew with Churchill Brothers 2-2; Dempo Club drew with Vasco 1-1; Tollygunge Agragami bt Sporting Clube de Goa 2-1; Mohun Bagan bt Salgaocar Club 1-0; East Bengal Club bt Mahindra United 2-0.

Round XIV: Churchill Brothers bt Indian Bank 4-1; JCT Mills lost to Sporting Clube de Goa 1-3; Mohammedan Sporting drew with Salgaocar 1-1; Mohun Bagan drew with Mahindra United 0-0; Tollygunge Agragami lost to Dempo 1-2; East Bengal bt Vasco 1-0.

Round XV: Mahindra United bt Indian Bank 2-0; Mohun Bagan lost to Sporting Clube de Goa 1-2; Churchill Brothers bt Salgaocar 2-1; Mohammedan Sporting drew with Tollygunge Agragami 1-1; East Bengal drew with Dempo 0-0; Vasco lost to JCT Mills 0-1.

Round XVI: Mohun Bagan lost to Tollygunge Agragami 0-1; Sporting Clube de Goa drew with Churchill Brothers 1-1; Mohammedan Sporting lost to Mahindra United 1-5; Indian Bank lost to Dempo 0-1; Vasco bt Salgaocar 3-1; East Bengal bt JCT Mills 3-0.

Round XVII: Churchill Brothers lost to Mohammedan Sporting 0-2; Sporting Clube de Goa bt Indian Bank 4-1; Dempo Sports Club drew with JCT Mills 0-0; Salgaocar lost to Mahindra United 1-2; Tollygunge Agragami lost to East Bengal 0-1; Vasco bt Mohun Bagan 5-1.

Round XVIII: Vasco lost to Indian Bank 1-2; Dempo bt Mohun Bagan 2-1; Sporting Clube de Goa lost to Salgaocar 0-2; Mohammedan Sporting lost to East Bengal 0-3; Mahindra United bt Churchill Brothers 2-1; JCT Mills drew with Tollygunge Agragami 1-1.

Round XIX: Dempo drew with Salgaocar 0-0; Churchill Brothers bt Vasco 2-1; JCT Mills bt Mohammedan Sporting 3-0; Indian Bank bt Tollygunge Agragami 1-0; Mohun Bagan lost to East Bengal 1-2; Mahindra United bt Sporting Clube de Goa 3-1.

Round XX: Dempo bt Churchill Brothers 2-0; Tollygunge Agragami drew with Salgaocar 0-0; East Bengal Club bt Indian Bank 3-0; JCT Mills drew with Mohun Bagan 0-0; Vasco drew with Mahindra United 0-0; Sporting Clube de Goa drew with Mohammedan Sporting 2-2.

Round XXI: Indian Bank lost to Salgaocar 1-3; Mohun Bagan drew with Churchill Brother 0-0; Tollygunge Agragami drew with Vasco 0-0; JCT Mills drew with Mahindra United 0-0; Sporting Clube de Goa lost to East Bengal 1-2; Dempo bt Mohammedan Sporting 3-2.

Round XXII: Sporting Clube de Goa lost to Dempo 1-3; Salgaocar drew with JCT Mills 1-1; Vasco bt Mohammedan Sporting 2-0; Churchill Brothers SC bt East Bengal 1-0; Indian Bank lost to Mohun Bagan 1-4; Mahindra United bt Tollygunge Agragami 3-2.

Final league standings

Read as under: played, won, drawn, lost, goals in favour, goals against, goal difference and points.

1. East Bengal — 22-15-4-3-37-13-(+24)-49. 2. Dempo SC — 22-12-9-1-28-12-(+16)-45.

3. Mahindra United — 22-12-5-5-34-21-(+13)-41.

4. Churchill Brothers — 22-10-6-6-29-24-(+5)-36.

5. JCT Mills — 22-8-9-5-23-21-(+2)-33. 6. Vasco SC — 22-6-10-6-22-19-(+3)-28. 7. Salgaocar SC — 22-7-6-9-24-23-(+1)-27.

8. Sporting Clube de Goa — 22-7-6-9-34-35-(-1)-27.

9. Mohun Bagan — 22-6-5-10-22-23-(-1)-24.

10. Tollygunge Agragami — 22-4-8-10-16-24-(-8)-20.

11. Mohammedan Sporting Club — 22-4-7-11-20-39-(-19)-19.

12. Indian Bank — 22-2-2-18-15-50-(-35)-8. Leading scorers:

1. Cristiano Junior (EB) — 15 goals; 2. Yakubu Yusuf (CB) — 14; 3. Dudu Omagbemi (Sp Clube) — 13; 4. Baichung Bhutia (EB) — 12; 5. Abdullatif Seriki (Sp. Clube) — 10. 6. Sunday Seah (Dem) — 9; 7. Raphael Patron (MU), Akeem Abul Alem (TA), Syed Rahim Nabi (Md Sp), Harvinder Singh (JCT), Abhishek Yadav (MU) — 7; 8. Felix Aboagye (MU), Felix Ibrebru (Sal), Amaechi Tochukwu (Vas), Marcos Pereira (Vas), S. Venkatesh (MU), I. M. Vijayan (JCT) — 6; 9. Jose Barreto (MB), Ashim Biswas (MB), Dipendu Biswas (MSC), R. C. Prakash (Dem), Renedy Singh (MB) — 5; 10. Sheikh Habeeb Ali (TA), Chidi Edeh (MSC), Kasun Nadika Jayasuriya (IB), Freddy Mascarenhas (Sal), Clifford Miranda (Dem) — 4; 11. Jo Paul Ancheri (JCT), Benjamin Ansah (CB), Edson de Crasto (Vas), Mahendra Mani (IB), Mike Okoro (EB), Jerose Oliveira (SCG), Syed Shabir Pasha (IB), Bello Rasaq (Sal), Dipankar Roy (EB) — 3.

Hat-tricks:

1. Ashim Biswas (Mohun Bagan) against Indian Bank at Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata on 15-12-2003.

2. Yakubu Yusif (Churchill Brothers) against Indian Bank at Nehru Stadium, Goa on 05-03-04.

3. Felix Aboagye (Mahindra United) against Mohammedan Sporting at Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata on 17-03-04.

4. Marcos Pereira (Vasco) against Mohun Bagan at Nehru Stadium, Goa on 16-04-04.

Biggest wins:

1. East Bengal Club bt Mohammedan Sporting at Kolkata 4-0.

2. Mahindra United bt Mohammedan Sporting at Kolkata 5-1.

3. Vasco bt Mohun Bagan at Goa 5-1. Most goals in a match:

Mahindra United bt Mohammedan Sporting Club 4-3 at Mumbai on 11-12-03.