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.

East Bengal vs. Semen Padang
 
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
 
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!

Red and Gold’s Moments of International Glory

East Bengal Club have consistently performed well against strong teams from outside India over the years, and won a major trophy at the AFF Championship in 2003. Recently, they became the first Indian team to qualify for pre-quarter-finals of AFC Cup, unbeaten from their group. Kaushik Saha analyses their glorious performances over the years and previews their upcoming match

East Bengal have a glorious history when it comes to playing against opposition from outside India. This includes countries ranked far above India by FIFA – for instance, PAS Tehran Club of Iran in the IFA Shield final in 1970 and Pyongyang City Club of North Korea in the IFA Shield final of 1973. In 1993, as a wide-eyed 11-year-old, I had seen them demolish Al Jahra 6-2 in an Asian Cup Winners’ Cup match with Carlton Chapman scoring a hat-trick. And then, inspired by Baichung Bhutia and Sammy Omollo, they beat Verdy Kawasaki of Japan in 1997, one of the strongest clubs in Asia at that time. But their peak came in the ASEAN Club Championship in 2003 when they emerged winners by beating BEC Tero Sasana FC of Thailand, becoming the first Indian club to win a tournament at that level.

What makes East Bengal click against foreign opponents?

A cursory look at East Bengal’s domestic record in their 90+ years of existence will show they are as successful as their archrivals Mohun Bagan. Over the years, these two have weathered a lot of oppositions – good and great teams from Kolkata, Kerala, Punjab, Goa and the Northeast have played spectacular football in patches – but none have been able to match the longevity of these two clubs from Kolkata. A possible reason is that over the years, the legend of these two clubs has drawn innumerable greats of Indian football and from other countries to play for the duo.

But when it comes to results against international opposition, East Bengal are miles ahead of Mohun Bagan, or for that matter, any other Indian club. The main reason, as I see it, is that East Bengal have that certain legacy. Ever since the famous five Pandavas of East Bengal beat the Chinese XI in 1948, successive East Bengal teams have believed they can compete on an equal footing against any international opposition – irrespective of their status. The other teams are yet to get that kind of a breakthrough – result wise or mentally, against international clubs. East Bengal have had patches where such victories were hard to come, but those patches haven’t lasted too long. A second reason is that East Bengal, unlike a few other clubs, have taken international tournaments or outings as importantly as domestic engagements, even when they have not been part of tournaments played in India.

Case in point – Churchill Brothers this season sacrificed their Asian campaign to win the I-League, not a bad move really, but it showed where their priorities lie. East Bengal, on the other hand, took the AFC Cup as seriously as they take any match they play in India. As a result, they finished as unbeaten group toppers, becoming the first Indian team to achieve this feat.

East Bengal’s AFC campaign 2013

East Bengal have had a dream run in the AFC Cup this year. They emerged unbeaten in their group, and emerged group toppers with 14 points (Selangor of Vietnam finished second with eight points), which means they will play their pre-quarter-final match at home. Now, a detailed list of results is available on the internet, and I shan’t repeat them, but talk of East Bengal’s strategy instead.

What went in East Bengal’s favour? East Bengal were in contention to win the I-League after nearly a decade, but once a couple of results went against them, they decided to give the AFC Cup their best shot and ensured their players stay fresh in the crucial matches by rotating players in tournaments like the IFA Shield.

East Bengal players celebrate a goal in AFC Cup 2013

A combination of youth (Lalrindika Ralte, Manandeep Singh and Sanju Pradhan) and experience (Mehtab Hossain, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Harmanjot Khabra), good foreign signings (like Andrew Barisić, who didn’t let the hangover of Tolgay Özbey remain) and established foreign players (Uga Okpara, Penn Orji and Chidi Edeh) ensured a balanced team, so much so that the absence of a veteran like Alvito D’Cunha and the off form of Robin Singh (mainstay in the last couple of seasons along with Tolgay who left for Mohun Bagan) were hardly felt. Chidi and Barisić scored goals at crucial times while Naoba Singh and Okpara defended well. The surprise packages were Arnab Mondal in defence and Dika as a midfielder – two young players who hold great promise for Indian football. Trevor James Morgan, the experienced British coach, used 4-3-3 and 4-2-1-3 combinations with great effect – he crowded the defence and didnot let the attack falter either.

What worked in East Bengal’s favour was that their home matches were being played in the extreme heat and humidity of a Kolkata summer. Their rivals from Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore also have hot summers, but the Kolkata summer is of a different league altogether – clubbed with energy-sapping humidity. As a result, East Bengal players, used to this weather, won all their home matches convincingly and collected valuable points. But their most significant victory was the away 4-2 victory vs. Tampines Rovers in Singapore, a match which instilled confidence that they could emerge as group toppers.

Road ahead for East Bengal in AFC Cup 2013

East Bengal next plays Yangon United FC, Myanmar National League champions for the last two years. They finished second in their group behind New Radiant of Maldives on goal difference. They are definitely not a pushover team, having won five of their matches and losing just one (the away match to New Radiant), and having scored 18 goals, of which 9 have been scored by Adama Koné, their striker from Ivory Coast. Besides Koné, they have a good defender in the form of Michael Cvetkovski of Australia and an inspirational captain-midfielder in the form of Khin Maung Lwin who is the Malaysian national captain as well, with 49 international caps. But then, East Bengal will have the home advantage, with Yangon having to battle the weather and a boisterous crowd of 50,000 East Bengal supporters at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan. The rules of AFC Cup ensure there’s no away match for East Bengal, and they would like to cash in. East Bengal at this stage, have no major injury related concerns and will play the only I-League match vs. Shillong Lajong FC on May 12, a match which does not hold much significance to East Bengal, and they can afford to rest a couple of their first team players.

The Yangon United team

Two interesting facts about Yangon – they started off as Air Bagan; now that sounds similar to archrivals Mohun Bagan, and they are affiliated with BEC Tero Sasana (player training programmes etc.), who have been mentioned earlier in the article. If East Bengal go through to the quarter-final, they will have to play either Semen Padang of Indonesia or SHB Ðà Nẵng of Vietnam. Those matches will be played in September, and on a home and away basis. But that’s quite far away. For now, let’s hope for an East Bengal victory today and also wish they bid their talismanic coach Morgan a fitting farewell.