Many will rarely forget how it feels to make history, but for a few, history is just a mere effect of the cause, which is effort that results in ecstacy and victory.
The latter will be what players and staff of the East Bengal team that conquered all opposition and captured the ASEAN Cup trophy, in Jakarta, exactly a decade ago, 26th July, 2003 will feel. It is a feat that has never been replicated by an Indian club again.
Some will never forget it, some will feel as though it happened only yesterday. But one thing for certain - when these players get together, they tell a story far more intricate than any script ever written.
Bhaichung Bhutia, who is now working as an administrator shared his feelings, about the events that unravelled during that fateful tournament. “I still get goosebumps… One of the most important victories of my career. It brought football into limelight. See, when India won the LG Cup in 2002, it gave us a platform. But people started taking us seriously only when we won the ASEAN Club Championship. It was more because BEC Tero Sasana was in the final of the AFC Champions League and they were the in-form team. We had lost to them in our first match. But when we faced them in the final, we were not nervous. We wanted to go out there and give our best shot. The rest is history.”
“East Bengal failed to deliver in the next few years because they could not hold on to that team. It was a dream team. Every player was at his peak. That we were able to build that team was because of Subhas Bhowmick’s efforts.”
“Ahead of the tournament, he introduced new methods. We stayed at a five-star hotel. He played a major role in appointing South African physical trainer Kevin Jackson. It was a first by any Indian club. I mean it was an ideal way of having pre-season training and I respect Bhowmick for that.”
Says Debjit Ghosh: “My family celebrates July 21, 2003 as my second birthday. I could have died that day. I suffered a concussion after a collision with an opponent. What hurt me more was that the injury forced me to sit out of the semis and final. I was really disappointed. But then, when your team wins, you forget everything. But I really wish I were on the field on that Saturday.”
Still he bears no ill towards fate and elucidates further, “The ASEAN Cup victory will remain one of the finest moments in East Bengal club’s history, but unfortunately it failed to inspire other clubs to vie for continental honours. East Bengal followed it up by becoming the first Indian club to make the quarterfinal cut in the AFC Cup. This time around, East Bengal have again reached the AFC Cup quarterfinals. The red and golds must look to go all the way.”
Alvto D’Cunha, another important member of the squad who is now employed by the red-and-gold brigade as a player-staff explained to The Times of India, “How time flies! Ten years ago, when we landed in Jakarta, nobody gave us a chance, but we were destined to create history. Winning the ASEAN Club Championship remains the highest point of my career. There were a number of brilliant players in that East Bengal side. Of course, we enjoyed a bit of luck, but after losing our first match we lifted our game and played consistently well throughout the tournament. I will always remember the final where my goal proved to be crucial. We were leading 2-0 but when BEC Terro Sassana pulled one back, we came under tremendous pressure. Had they scored another goal at that stage, it could have been disaster for us. But I managed to score off my non-kicking (right) foot and we held on to win 3-1. It is a memory that I will cherish all my life”.
Sandip Nandy, goalkeeper for that team, now a player for Mohun Bagan reflected, “Well, I really cannot believe it’s been 10 years since we won the title. It still feels like yesterday that we returned from Jakarta and we were greeted by thousands of fans. Amazing scenes those were! Actually, the tournament made me what I am today. It taught me so much. I was adjudged the best goalkeeper. I remember saving a shot in the tie-breakers. The save took us to the final. There was a lot of hue and cry over our stay at a five-star hotel. Our triumph silenced all the critics. We were simply fantastic.”
Subhas Bhowmick, coach of East Bengal for the tournament, felt differently and said to The Telegraph, “It was a crucial victory at that point in time. We played our hearts out and won the trophy. But then, past is past… I don’t want to remember history. I only look forward. The victory doesn’t hold any significance for me now.”