East Bengal’s Golden Continental Run
Kingfisher East Bengal FC has recently been the second Indian team to make it to the last-four stage of a continental championship as the only unbeaten club in this year’s competition. Kaushik Saha traces their incredible journey with a brief history of the tournament and a way ahead for the Red and Gold brigade
One may wonder why I am following up on East Bengal’s record against foreign opponents so soon with a similar piece – but the club’s latest achievement merits another article.
East Bengal became the second team, and first outside the current Indian football powerhouse of Goa (Dempo also reached the semi-finals in 2008, but the tournament was played in a different format then) to make it to the semi-finals of a continental championship – the AFC Cup. What makes their achievement more special is that they have not lost a single match so far – the only club in this year’s competition with the above feat. East Bengal has played 9, won six and drawn 3 this season.
There is another reason to feel proud as an Indian football fan and East Bengal’s. After some unimpressive performances by the national team which includes a loss to Afghanistan in the recently concluded SAFF Cup, East Bengal has joined two teams from Kuwait and one team from Jordan in the last 4 matches.
The AFC Cup
The Asian Football Confederation developed a “Vision Asia” document in the early 2000s in which they looked at the club and national football structure in its entirety. The report identified 14 nations that fell outside the top 14 ranked countries from Asia as “emerging nations”. A decision was taken that domestic clubs from top 14 “developed nations” would play in the Asian Champions League, while 32 clubs from the emerging nations would play in the AFC Cup. There is also an AFC President’s Cup, meant for the 12 teams which do not fall in either category.
The multiple-tier structure is similar to that of Europe’s UEFA Champions League and the Europa League. This is to provide the clubs from emerging nations an opportunity to compete at the continental level. The first edition was held in 2004. Initially, ACL and AFC Cup were unrelated, but 2009 onwards, the winner of the AFC Cup is allowed to take part in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. A single-match Round of 16 was introduced the same year. Kuwait Sports Club and Al-Faisaly club of Jordan are the two clubs with 2 titles each, with Kuwait SC being the defending champions.
India is one of the 14 original countries (the list has kept on changing according to FIFA rankings and clubs’ performances and now increased to 16) and has remained in the list – two clubs are allowed to participate from India. The two clubs that represent India are the champions of the Federation Cup and the I-league.
Indian Clubs’ Performance in AFC Cup
India has been historically represented by only six teams – East Bengal, Mahindra United (now disbanded), Mohun Bagan, Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers (Churchill Brothers and Dempo have also played in the AFC Champions League playoffs). Besides Dempo, who lost in the 2008 semi-finals to Al-Safa of Lebanon, East Bengal reached the quarter-finals in 2004 where they lost to Al-Jaish of Syria and Mahindra United reached the same stage in 2007 where they lost to Al-Nejmeh of Lebanon.
East Bengal’s Performance in the Current Season
East Bengal qualified for the tournament as winners of the 2012 Federation Cup, with I-League winners Churchill Brothers being the other participant from India. East Bengal went through a lot of changes during the course of the tournament. First and most importantly, their talismanic coach – who led them in the Round of 32 to the top of the group and then a comfortable win in the Round of 16 -Trevor James Morgan left the team after three years in charge at the end of the Indian football season in June, but before East Bengal played their crucial quarter-final match.
Some changes took place in the team as well. Robin Singh was let go to get in Joaquim Abranches. Penn Orji of Nigeria was replaced by James Moga of South Sudan and Ryuji Sueoka of Japan came in place of Australian Andrew Barisić. However, Mehtab Hussain, the skipper for this season and the engine of the team, defender Arnab Mondal and Nigerian centre-back Uga Okpara have been retained.
East Bengal’s preparation for the quarter-final was far from ideal. Their new coach – Brazilian Marcos Falopa is yet to fully settle in and soak in the local culture. East Bengal played just two competitive matches this season in the Calcutta Football League, one of which could not be completed due to poor light conditions. The opposition was Semen Padang, the Indonesian champions who had played pre-season friendlies against teams from West Asia and topped the group which included Churchill Brothers.
However, two things went in East Bengal’s favour –one, by virtue of earlier round results, they faced a comparatively weaker team from South East Asia rather than a West or Central Asian team. Secondly, they played their first match at home, in front of a vociferous 40,000 strong crowd, which helped them get the initial momentum. They won 1-0 at home (Yuva Bharati Krirangan) via a goal from substitute Ryuji Sueoka. More importantly, they didn’t allow Semen Padang to score an away goal. In the return leg at Indonesia, East Bengal fell behind, but managed an equalizer via South Sudanese international James Moga. The 1-1 draw was enough to send them into the semi-finals on a 2-1 aggregate.
The Way Ahead
In the round of semi-final, both advantages East Bengal had in the Round of 8 will be negated. They will play the defending champions and Kuwaiti Premier League champions Kuwait SC away first on October 1 at their home ground Al Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, followed by the home match on October 22. The first leg will be played just seven days after the second leg of the quarter-final, which means East Bengal won’t have the time to rest their injured players or play a competitive match in Indian tournaments. The I-League has begun, and East Bengal haven’t been able to start so far because of their Asian engagements. That, and the festival season in India means they will virtually have no time for mental and physical preparation for the second leg.
Kuwait SC is ranked 141 in the World Football Club ranking, in touching distance with eminent European Clubs like AS Roma. To put in a perspective, East Bengal is ranked last among the eligible clubs at 447, the only Indian club to feature in the rankings.
After losing to Bahrain based Al-Riffa and Safa in the group stage, Kuwait SC have not looked back. They topped their group despite the setbacks. In the Round of 16, they beat Iraqi Premier League club Dohuk SC on penalties. In the quarter-finals, they beat New Radiant of Maldives 12-2 over two legs. They have in their ranks the Tunisian striker Issam Jemâa, (who has the record of scoring the most goals for the Tunisian national team, and is also the top scorer in the current AFC Cup with 13 goals, including 7 vs. New Radiant), Bahrain defender Hussain Ali Baba (who has 71 international caps for Bahrain) and Brazilian striker Rogerinho in their ranks, besides one of the most celebrated players in Kuwait, midfielder Jarah Al Ateeqi as their captain.
East Bengal was embroiled in a slight visa issue, which means some of the key first team players, including captain Mehtab, will reach Kuwait less than 36 hours before the start of the match. Nigerian Chidi Edeh is their top scorer in the tournament and a dependable forward. Coach Falopa has repeatedly stressed that he won’t mind conceding two or three as long as they score at least one vital away goal. The coach hinted at a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 formation, but has kept cards close to his chest as far as the starting 11 is concerned for the first leg.
A victory will be historic, because not only will they be the first Indian team to reach the finals, but will improve India’s AFC quotient. If they do so, they will have to contend with the winners of Al-Faisaly and Qadsia Sporting Club of Syria. And that would be a single leg match on a neutral territory. Let’s wish East Bengal the best and hope they make the nation proud!