A cup to celebrate

Print edition : August 29, 2003

East Bengal's historic victory in the Asean Cup gives a much-needed fillip to Indian football.

IN 1911, the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club wrote its name in the annals of Indian football history, when its bare-footed players defeated the mighty British East York regiment 2-1 in the Indian Football Association (IFA) Challenge Shield final at Eden Gardens in Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was the first victory for an Indian football team against a British one and its significance transcended the football field. Football was not merely a sport anymore but was hailed as a historic symbol of resistance against the British imperialists.

The East Bengal team after winning the Asean Club Championship at the Bung Karno main soccer stadium in Jakarta on July 26. East Bengal beat BEC-Tero Sasana of Thailand 3-1 in the final.-DITA ALANGKARA/AP

Ninety-two years later, it was the turn of Mohun Bagan's arch rivals East Bengal to bring glory to Indian football. By defeating Thailand's BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the Asean Club Championship final in Jakarta on July 26, East Bengal became the first Indian club to win an international tournament. The triumph was made even more special by the fact that it was achieved on foreign soil.

It was a victory, as former national star P.K. Banerjee put it, of "grit, fierce self-belief and strategy".S Having lost to last year's Asian Football Confederation (AFC) League champions BEC Tero Sasana in their very first match, East Bengal were definitely the underdogs when the two met again in the final. Moreover, East Bengal scraped through to the final after beating the Indonesian team Petrokima Putra in a sudden-death penalty shootout in the semi-finals. Yet, the ease with which they won the final, was very impressive, particularly since the team played without its premier defenders, Debjit Ghosh and Mahesh Gawli.

In the final, East Bengal scored first in the 28th minute through Nigerian striker Mike Okoro and consolidated its position further when Baichung Bhutia scored his ninth goal of the tournament in the 48th minute. The Thai team tried to stage a comeback with a goal in the 58th minute by Panai Kongpaphan but the skillful Goan midfielder Alvito D'Cunha shattered all hopes of the Thai team by scoring in the 69th minute.

The effortlessness of the victory conceals the dedication, hard work, team spirit and planning behind it. East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick, the key factor behind the victory, told Frontline, "I dared to dream and worked accordingly to achieve it." From hiring South African fitness expert Kevin Jackson to arranging five-star accommodation for his players for the month prior to the tournament, Bhowmick left no stone unturned. To prepare his players. In return, he demanded the best from them. "It was important for them not to leave for a foreign country with an inferiority complex. Moreover, by staying for a month together in a hotel, we all grew closer to each other, and Kevin and I could keep a close watch on the diet of the players and their training," Bhowmick said.

Kevin Jackson, physical trainer.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

One of Kevin Jackson's priorities was to institute a more nutritious diet for the players. Spicy food was out and bland food from which the players could extract maximum nutrition was the order of the day. Jackson also insisted that the players undergo weight-training in the gym. "Earlier there was no structured training programme. I tried to bring that in. The idea is to increase muscle strength to avoid injuries and also recover quickly," Jackson told Frontline. In the Asean Cup, the results of Jackson's training programme was evident. The players looked leaner, fitter and stronger, and their stamina had increased considerably. "If you say that they look better now than they used to be, imagine if I had a few more months to work on them, how much better they would still be," Jackson added.

East Bengal's triumph is significant not just for Indian football but for Indian sport in general. The win provided a much-needed shot in the arm for sport in the country. Though football is one of the most popular games among the masses in the country, interest in Indian football has been waning for a long time mainly because of the lack of international success. By contrast, cricket has achieved unprecedented levels of popularity among the masses since India's 1983 World Cup victory, reminding one of Marx's famous dictum that "an idea becomes a material force when it grips the masses". One can find a tinge of sadness about Indian football's long neglect in the voice of a former Indian national team captain, the legendary Chuni Goswami. He told Frontline, with a hint of irony: "My son plays golf, my grandson plays cricket and poor Chuni Goswami ran thousands of miles playing football."

Is it only Indian football's lack of international success that has kept sponsors and the media away? National team captain Baichung Bhutia, arguably the best Indian footballer of his generation, certainly thinks so. "We need to play many more international tournaments. Only then will we be able to improve our game and also give Indian football more exposure abroad. That will automatically help the sport in the country. However, it should not be done at the expense of domestic football," Bhutia told Frontline. "Winning the Asean Cup is something that I will always remember. I don't know if this is a turning point for Indian football, but it is certainly significant. The younger players can now have the confidence that they are good enough to compete at the international level," he added. In order to popularise the game further, Bhutia feels that it is necessary to market Indian football properly and important to attract more media attention to the game.

Swapan Ball, manager of the Kingfisher East Bengal team, states pragmatically: "It is not fair to blame the media alone for the relegation of Indian football to the background. It is our fault that for so long we could not achieve a level of excellence that would excite the media and shift their focus to football. But with the Asean Cup victory you have seen how much more coverage we are getting, both in the print and in the electronic media." Ball's observation appears to be correct. seen in the light of the Federation Cup. On the streets of Kolkata, the Mecca of Indian football, many television retail shops, which used to display only cricket matches on store TVs, showed live telecasts of the Federation Cup games this time. Football has become a major topic of discussion in tea shops, buses, shared autos, metros and local trains. For the time being at least, attention has shifted from Kolkata's favourite son Sourav Ganguly (himself an enthusiastic East Bengal supporter) to its beloved adopted son, Baichung Bhutia.

Baichung Bhutia.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

A resurgence in Indian football is long overdue. The enthusiasm for the game in the country is still localised and this is demonstrated by the fact that nine of the 16 teams that participated in this year's Federation Cup were from Kolkata and Goa. From Kerala, one of the traditional strongholds of domestic football, no team participated in the tournament this year. It is now up to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to promote the game in parts of the country other than West Bengal and Goa. Goa is the only State where there is a professional league. Despite the tremendous popularity and competitiveness of the Kolkata league, it is only a semi-professional one. But Kolkata still remains a stronghold of Indian football, with East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, three of the most well-known clubs in the country, based in the city.

At the social level, the Bengali urban middle class, especially in Kolkata, has for decades been divided in its support between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The "Ghotis" (those who hail from areas in West Bengal) largely comprise Mohun Bagan's support base, while the "Bangals" (those with roots in today's Bangladesh, formerly East Bengal) are East Bengal's most loyal fans. Since the time of undivided Bengal this "non-antagonistic contradiction" has been a part of life in Kolkata. It would not be an exaggeration to state that, in an otherwise non-fragmented society, several families have been divided on the basis of allegiance to these two football teams. With time the line between Bangals and Ghotis has blurred but it is still not unusual to see the supporters of the two teams indulge in fisticuffs, particularly during a Calcutta Derby (a match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan). This rivalry even manages to invade the local fish market, where the relative prices of Hilsa (Bangals' favourite dish) and shrimp (the Ghotis' preferred food) depend on the outcome of the Calcutta Derby.

It is precisely this fanatical devotion of the fans that has built and kept alive the tradition of football in the country, especially in Kolkata. Football is a game where it is extremely difficult for a spectator to remain completely dispassionate. Sooner or later, he or she is bound to take sides. As Chuni Goswami, a Mohun Bagan loyalist, told Frontline: "We (East Bengal and Mohun Bagan) are complementary to each other, not contradictory. For over 80 years, this rivalry and fierce loyalty of the fans has kept football alive and kicking in Kolkata." The jubilation among Mohun Bagan supporters after East Bengal's historic Asean Cup triumph is testimony to what the legendary footballer said.

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