East Bengal ASEAN Cup 2003Getty Images

Indian Football: Down the memory lane - East Bengal’s ASEAN Cup win in 2003

East Bengal’s triumph in the ASEAN Club Championship in 2003 is considered to be one of the greatest achievements by an Indian club at the international stage.

The Kolkata giants under the tutelage of Subhash Bhowmick did the unthinkable at Jakarta, beating some of the top clubs of the ASEAN region at that time.

Just to add a little more gravity to their achievement, the Red and Golds had outclassed Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana club who had finished runners-up in the 2002-03 season of the AFC Champions League.

East Bengal were a star-studded unit in that season as some of the finest talents of Indian football a part of the Red and Golds. With the likes of Sandip Nandy, Bhaichung Bhutia, S. Venkatesh, Alvito D’Cunha, Mahesh Gavli and Deepak Mondal in the side, they were a very capable side.

They squad consisted some top overseas players as well. Ghanaian defender Sule Musah was the captain of the side and he was accompanied by versatile Brazilian defender Douglas D’Silva and Nigerian striker Mike Okoro.

With quality oozing through the squad, a good run in the ASEAN Cup was always probable for East Bengal and they left no stones unturned in the preparation for the competition.

Bhowmick decided to keep the entire team at a five-star hotel in Kolkata for a month during the pre-season and hired South African physical trainer Kevin Jackson to improve the physical fitness of the side. Such preparation ahead of a tournament was unheard of before this in Indian football.

East Bengal ASEAN Cup 2003Getty Images

The Red and Golds were placed in the Group D of the competition alongside giants BEC Tero Sasana and Philippines' Army Football Club. The Kolkata side were off to a poor start to their campaign as they lost 0-1 to the Thai giants in the opening game.

They came back strongly in the second match as six goals from Bhutia sealed a thumping 6-0 victory for East Bengal and helped them book their place in the quarter-final.

In the quarter-final, East Bengal faced local club Persita Tangerang who had finished second in the previous season of the Liga Indonesia Premier Division.

It was in no way a smooth run for East Bengal against Persita. Even though they took the lead thanks to Bhutia’s strike but a controversial penalty gave the local club to stage a comeback. But Bijen Singh scored a late winner to send the Indian side to the semifinals.

The match also witnessed the horror injury to Debjit Ghosh. The midfielder was left unconscious after a head-on clash with an opposition player. Thanks to Douglas’ presence of mind, Ghosh’s life was saved on that day. The Brazilian’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and later team doctor Shantiranjan Dasgupta’s efforts helped the midfielder recover.

The Kolkata giants received yet another blow in the semifinal against Petrokimia Putra as Mahesh Gawli was sent off with the scored tied at 1-1. A 10-man East Bengal fought valiantly and won the tie in the penalty shootout (7-6).

The final was, of course, a high-pressure occasion as the Red and Golds were up against an unbeaten BEC Tero side. The opening match defeat was also lingering in the East Bengal players' thoughts.

East Bengal ASEAN Cup 2003

Bhowmick’s message for his team was clear. He instructed his players to enjoy the moment as reaching the final of such a tournament was no mean feat.

41 years back, the Indian national team had scripted history at the same venue (Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium) as they defeated South Korea 2-1 and won the Asian Games gold medal.

Okoro handed them an inspired East Bengal the lead in the first half from Alvito D’Cunha’s through ball. Bhutia doubled the lead at the very beginning of the second half. The Thai club pulled one back in the 58th minute but Alvito’s brilliant strike from the edge of the box in the 70th minute sealed the fate of the match in East Bengal’s favour.

The victorious Red and Golds side were given a hero’s welcome in Kolkata as thousands of fans flocked the Kolkata international airport. History was created in Jakarta on July 26, 2003, a feat which is one of its kind.