Subhash Bhowmick, Asiad medallist who gave up beer to become football legend, dies at 72

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Subhash Bhowmick, the 1970 Asian Games bronze medallist footballer, passed away early Saturday morning at 72. He was suffering from renal ailments and, according to his family sources, had recently had a chest infection also.

One of those very few Indian footballers post the Class of 50s and 60s to have an Asian Games medal, Bhowmick was undergoing dialysis but remained sprightly, still harbouring hopes to return to the maidan in the future. At around 3.30 am on Saturday, Bhowmick breathed his last at a private hospital in Kolkata.

Three years after the 1970 Asiad, Bhowmick was leaving Mohun Bagan in tears, after being made the fall guy of a disastrous season. As he was walking back home, former East Bengal official Ajay Srimani picked him up from in front of Eden Gardens and took him to Kaiser Street in Sealdah, then East Bengal coach PK Banerjee’s residence. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Pradip da is my football father,” Bhowmick used to say often. But it wasn’t easy back in 1973, for an overweight injury-prone centre-forward, with a fondness for beer. During many conversations with this correspondent over the years, Bhowmick would say how his “guru” had laid down the conditions – the first of which was about giving up beer – as arduous fitness training began. “I told Pradip da, if I could match his expectations and had a great season, he would have to drink beer once. East Bengal won almost everything that was on offer that season and I was the only footballer who compelled his coach to take his first sip of beer,” Bhowmick would say later.

From 1973 to 1975, he tormented East Bengal’s arch-rivals, Mohun Bagan. It included a 5-0 rout in the IFA Shield final in 1975, when Bhowmick was seen contemptuously inviting green-and-maroon players to win the ball from him, holding it on the goalline and delaying the tap-in until the opponents charged in.

By then, he was an established right-winger, courtesy of the legendary former East Bengal secretary Jyotish Guha. In one of the conversations, Bhowmick would recall how it happened. “I played the first two-three matches for East Bengal as a centre-forward. Then, Jyotish da called me in his office and told me to play as a right-winger. ‘Your first touch is poor. You will be caught out by the central defenders. Move to the flanks,’ that was Jyotish da’s instruction. That was the level of officialdom we used to have in the sport back then.”

Eventually, Bhowmick and Mohun Bagan patched up and he returned to his old club, and scored goals aplenty. He was part of the treble-winning Mohun Bagan team in 1977, netting a total of 82 goals during his association with the club. He scored 83 goals for East Bengal. He won 26 trophies in his club career.

Bhowmick’s coaching career started in the late 1980s. Former AIFF president Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi was instrumental in giving him the Indian team’s responsibility. Bhowmick’s first stint as a coach was a failure, both for India and Bagan. “I wasn’t ready then,” he would admit.

But he came roaring back in the new millennium, winning back-to-back National League titles as East Bengal coach and then replicated the success as Churchill Brothers’ technical director. But his crowning glory was guiding the red-and-gold to the ASEAN Club Championship title in 2003.

Bhowmick liked to live life king-size. In the 1970s, when the majority of big club footballers in Kolkata were using public transport to training and matches, he drove a Studebaker and smoked 555. It had its fallout. He was arrested and imprisoned in a bribery case in 2005.

During a private conversation about a month ago, Subhash Bhowmick was lamenting the “incompetence” of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) that had shunted him, and his former Mohun Bagan team-mate Subrata Bhattacharya, out of mainstream coaching.

Tributes poured in today from different quarters and Mohun Bagan legend Bhattacharya, Bhowmick’s close friend, sniggered at them. “Now, everybody is saying Bhowmick was an excellent coach. Of course, he was, having won so many trophies. But then, why didn’t the three big clubs here use his expertise? Why did the Federation ostracise him under the pretext of not having a coaching licence? Why didn’t the state government use him to nurture Bengal football? Even without the licence, he could have been easily the technical director at any club or the Indian football team. Now people are shedding a tear, but nobody looked after him when he fell into a financial crisis,” Bhattacharya told The Sunday Express.

Bhowmick’s football was power-packed. He refused to be the officials’ yes-man as a coach. It didn’t go down well with the powers-that-be in Indian football.

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