For Bhaichung Bhutia, Saturday’s AFC Cup final featuring Bengaluru FC is India’s biggest club game since East Bengal won the ASEAN Cup.
On July 26, 2003, East Bengal, invited to the tournament comprising teams from south-east Asian nations, beat Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in the final with goals from Mike Okoro, Bhutia and Alvito d’Cunha. What made the victory even more creditable was that BEC Tero Sasana had already qualified for the Asian Champions League final when they met East Bengal in Jakarta, at the same stadium where India had won its last football gold in the 1962 Asian Games.
“This is definitely the biggest game since the ASEAN Cup final,” Bhutia told HT over the phone from Gangtok. “The interest level in our win was fantastic then and it can happen again should Bengaluru FC win. Even otherwise, this is a big achievement for them.”
East Bengal’s victory resonated not only through Kolkata, where they were welcomed by people thronging the streets from the airport to the club even though they arrived at night, but was also across the country. Indian football took off on the social media during and after the 2007 Nehru Cup and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup but even in those pre-Facebook, Twitter and Orkut days, the feat created quite a buzz.
In a group league game of the ASEAN Cup, Bhutia scored four goals. He also scored once each in the quarter-final and the semi-final and was taken on loan by Perak FC of Malaysia where he scored four goals in eight games. Perak finished fourth in the ASEAN Cup.
Asked what his advice would be against Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya, Bhutia said: “I think they should make sure that they give everything. That’s what we did. We also did not expect to win it. We simply wanted to give of our best in the final, leave everything on the pitch. Bengaluru FC have been together and dreamed together about this for a while. Going into the final, they just don’t need to think about the result.”
Irrespective of how the final ends, Bhutia said this feat will help India make a mark in Asia. “True, this is not the Asian Champions League but the AFC Cup is a big tournament. I think with the right set-up and in time, Bengaluru FC can challenge clubs from top Asian countries,” he said.
Bhutia, who heads the federation’s technical, coaching and development committee, also said Bengaluru FC have vindicated the All India Football Federation’s decision to give them a direct entry in the top tier for a price which was funnelled into development of football.
“With Bengaluru FC, this experiment has certainly clicked and by their performance the club has paid back the AIFF. If they win it now, it will be like living a dream,” he said.
The other big takeaway, according to Bhutia, is that continuity pays. “Bengaluru FC retained the nucleus of the squad and there is a lesson in that for Indian clubs. This team’s management has shown that you don’t be successful by overhauling the roster every season,” he said.