Subhas Bhowmick, the bustling former India right-out who as coach made East Bengal a serial winner in the early 2000s, died here early on Saturday after a heart attack following complications from Covid-19. Bhowmick was diabetic and, following chronic renal failure, was on dialysis support from last year. He was 71 and is survived by wife, son and daughter.
Born on October 2— “I couldn’t have missed being great,” he would say with a belly laugh — Bhowmick’s biggest moment as a player was being part of the team that won the 1970 Asian Games bronze. It was the last time India made the continental podium. In the brief flickering of the national team at the Asian level in 1970 and 1971, Bhowmick was a key forward; his never-say-die spirit, his refusal to take a step back even when injured, playing an important part.
As coach, he won the 2003 ASEAN Cup with East Bengal and it remains one of Indian club football’s finest moments. At a time when domestic football had slipped out of the national consciousness and India often struggled against teams from south Asia, that 3-1 triumph over Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana in Jakarta with goals from Mike Okoro, Bhaichung Bhutia and Alvito d’Cunha created a stir across the country. The Singapore Airlines flight that brought East Bengal home had the pilot and crew congratulating the team, which was met by thousands lining up the roads from the Kolkata airport.
If there was one person who believed East Bengal had a chance in the competition with featured BEC, a club that had already qualified for the Asian Champions League final, it was Bhowmick. He convinced a sceptical club management to hire South African physical trainer Kevin Jackson, got the players to stay at a five-star property near Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium for a month and fought to change flight bookings so that the players would get adequate rest.
East Bengal lost the opener to BEC but beat Philippine Army 6-0; Indonesian clubs Persita Tangerang in the quarter-final and Petrokemia Putra in the semi-final. For scoring nine goals in the competition, Bhutia went on loan to Malaysian club Perak, making him the first player East Bengal were paid a fee for.
Never one to mince words, Bhowmick, still at East Bengal, hit out at the club management one year after that July triumph, saying it had learnt nothing and was not keen on trying to make a mark in Asia.
Between 2002-04, Bhowmick’s East Bengal ruled India, winning successive editions of the National Football League (2002-03; 2003-04) and staying in the title race till the last day in 2004-05. East Bengal also won the IFA Shield, Durand Cup, Independence Day Cup and the San Miguel Cup in Kathmandu in that time.
It was reminiscent of how East Bengal dominated in 1973 when Bhowmick played for them. Between 1973 and 1975, East Bengal won the Calcutta League and IFA Shield three times, a local double that included the 5-0 defeat of Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield final. In imperious form that season, Bhowmick scored two goals in the 1973 IFA Shield final against Pyongyang City, East Bengal winning 3-1. East Bengal were then coached by the legendary PK Banerjee, who was Bhowmick’s Indian idol as coach.
Refusal to get badges—Bhowmick would say he had proved enough as a player and coach and was too old to seek certificates from anyone—cut short a coaching career that promised much. But clubs would still make him technical director, for which no badges were needed, and appoint a coach who had a licence.
Bhowmick played with distinction for Mohun Bagan—he scored more goals for them, 84 to 82, than at East Bengal and that is where he started his club coaching career—but never forgot the lifeline East Bengal gave him as a player in 1973 after Mohun Bagan had turned him away because he had a knee injury. He was cut up with East Bengal for not holding on to the players who had ruled India between 2002-05 but returned as technical adviser in 2018. In that role he had also masterminded Churchill Brothers’ I-League title in 2012-13, his last major title. He was also India coach for a tournament in Bangladesh in 1989.
Bhowmick first played for Rajasthan Club in 1968, moving to East Bengal a year later. His India debut happened in the Merdeka Cup in 1970. He played only 24 games for India scoring nine goals but two of them came in the 1970 Asian Games where he, Habib, Shyam Thapa, Inder Singh, Magan Singh and Amar Bahadur comprised the attacking players in the side coached by GM Basha with PK Banerjee.
Having finished third in the Merdeka Cup where India blew a 2-0 lead against South Korea, the goals coming from Bhowmick and Habib, India began poorly at the Asian Games and were trailing 1-2 at half-time against hosts Thailand. The insipid first half led to India’s chef-de-mission calling the team cowards, journalist Jaydeep Basu has written in ‘Stories From Indian Football’. Bhowmick, who had scored in the first half, inspired the turnaround getting the equaliser and narrowly missing a hattrick. Led by Syed Nayeemuddin and watched by Fifa president Stanley Rous, India beat South Vietnam and Indonesia, and lost 0-1 to Japan and 0-2 to Burma in the semi-final before beating Japan 1-0 in the third-place play-off. India then won the Pesta Sukan invitation tournament in 1971. It would be the last senior competition India would play in 31 years.
Bhowmick, who spent all but his first season at two of India’s biggest teams, retired from East Bengal at 29 in 1979. By then he had won pretty much every domestic title, including the Santosh Trophy for Bengal, a competition where he scored 24 goals over seven editions.
From playing a season with a career-threatening knee injury to resuming coaching weeks after heart bypass surgery with the wound still raw and visible, little fazed him. Barring Banerjee, few have been as successful as Bhowmick as player and coach. Bhowmick had his share of controversies including being charged for bribery but returned to coaching with Mohammedan Sporting soon after being out of jail. The All India Football Federation has mourned his death.