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.