Throwback: The match which made Bhaichung Bhutia an Indian football legend
The goal in that semifinal between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan earmarked the moment when Bhaichung Bhutia would go from being a star to being a legend.
"Bhaichung should score...
and Bhaichung scores..."
This commentary by Novy Kapadia till date remains one of the most iconic commentary moments in Indian football history. Indian football fans remember it with fondness, for it, not only described the goal but also earmarked the moment when Bhaichung Bhutia would go from being a star to being a legend.
The match was the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan that had attracted more than 1,31,000 people (some say, after the match started 4000-5000 more people entered the stadium) — an Asian record for highest attendance at a sporting event -— at the Salt Lake Stadium.
By then, Bhaichung had already attained star status in Indian football. In the 1996-97 season, aged just 19, he had helped JCT Mills to win the India National Football League. He was the top goalscorer in the league, and was also named "1996 Indian Player of the Year".
(Source: The False9)
Now, before the game, the hype around the match in Bengal and other football-crazy regions was extremely high. Anyway it was the Kolkata derby but the fact that it was a semifinal, gave it even more importance. And on top of that, Mohun Bagan coach Amal Datta had tried to play mind games with the opposition before the match. He even went as far as to mock the young Bhaichung by calling him "Chung Chung Bhutia".
"There was a lot of hype surrounding the match and Amal da made some unwanted statements but Pradip da did not let the pressure come into his players," Bhaichung had recalled in an interview with PTI.
On the afternoon, a familiar hot and humid one for the Bengalis, Bagan were clear favourites to win the match, and truth be told, they controlled the proceedings. However, PK Banerjee’s tenacious tactics combined with Bhaichung’s guile in front of the goal meant East Bengal would get a 4-1 win. Bhaichung, himself, would score a terrific second-half hattrick, the first in the history of the Kolkata derby, pumped up by PK’s vocal tonic during the half time break.
There stood Bhaichung, the rising star who must disregard the Northeast-centric obsessions of the opposition coach, embrace his innate gifts, and destroy that Bagan defence line. Just a minute ino the second half, and a brilliant header from Bhaichung following Somatai Saiza's corner kick doubled East Bengal’s lead.
As Bagan fought for a way back into the match, Bhaichung kept finding space and broke the offside trap time and again, speeding past his markers. On one such occasion, he received the ball from Saiza, dribbled past a diving Ranjan Dey and goalkeeper Dora to find the net's top corner. Then, he completed his hattrick, tapping it home from close range after some fortunate rebounds.
"Pradip da (PK Banerjee) was such a cool and composed man and it reflected in the match. That's how he could get the best out of the players. It was definitely one of the biggest matches of my life," the former India striker was quoted saying.
After that game, Bhaichung would go on to win many more accolades, score many more goals, but none would be as special as that hattrick. It gave birth to an entire new generation of football fans in India, if someone did not follow Indian football before, after that match they would not stop discussing the forward’s heroics on the field.