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Durand Cup 2021: What Makes Asia’s Oldest Football Tournament So Special

West Bengal, Aug 25 (ANI): FC Gokulam Kerala celebrates the victory over the heavyweights Mohun Bagan in Durand Cup 2109 finals at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Sunday. (ANI Photo)

One hundred and thirty-three years after it was instituted, the Durand Cup will return for its most recent iteration, allowing clubs to lay a marker down ahead of the upcoming Indian football season.

In a sport that was introduced to India by the occupying British, the Durand was the prize attraction pre-independence, the belle of the ball. Nothing would give Indians more pleasure than toppling their imperial overlords at their own game. Hockey and cricket were played en masse but it was football that was the people’s game, even for a few decades after independence.

In his book Barefoot to Boots, eminent Indian football historian Novy wr about the Durand and the visiting teams.

“Dakshin Express aa rahi hai, Andhra Police aa raha hai, Durand jeetne aa rahi hai…” (“The Dakshin Express is arriving, Andhra Police have arrived, they have come here to win the Durand. Suddenly the crowd surged towards the train as it slid to a halt by the platform. Some men emerged from the compartment and were immediately garlanded. There were shouts of ‘Zindabad!’, a bearded man and some others were hoisted on to shoulders by the assembled crowd and, amidst vociferous cheers, carried out of the station. I watched, entranced – to me, it seemed like they were the most popular men in the world.”)

Footballers were rockstars post-independence and their competitiveness at the Asian and global level meant that they were a beacon of hope and prosperity for a fledgling nation. The Durand, in such a case, became the de-facto ‘India’s Got Talent’ stage of that era.

Unsurprisingly, Kolkata was the place where the earliest tussles on the field between the British and the Indians took place. British regimental teams and religious missionaries had propagated the sport, especially in the province of Bengal since the start of the 19th century.

In 1888, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary in charge of India (1884-1894) instituted the Durand Cup in Shimla. Durand was recovering from illness, and he intended to encourage sporting competition as a means to stay healthy. As with all other sporting and entertainment events, the Durand remained exclusionary towards the Indians for a long time.

In its earliest years, the Durand was a carnival affair, a celebration of skill. The townspeople of Shimla were enamoured by it and would come to watch in droves. By 1903, the Durand’s organizing committee had decided that the tournament would shuttle between the major cities of northern India to promote the game.

The locals of Shimla decided that they didn’t want to wait every few years to host this marquee event. Local leaders and well-wishers had become so attached to the tournament that they added a second trophy, The Simla Trophy, for the winning team.

Thirty-four years passed by before Indian teams could enter. Mohun Bagan, who had toppled a British team in the final of the 1911 IFA Shield with 11 barefoot players, was given the first crack at the Durand in 1922. The stage was set for a series of momentous showdowns between the locals and their rulers; the battles on the field paralleling the war for independence. The ‘hum kisi se kam nahi’ spirit was on display and it was unbridled.

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British regimental teams remained victorious for the first 52 years, until the year that the tournament shifted to the Irwin Amphitheatre (Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium) in New Delhi. East India Railways was the first Indian civilian team to reach the final, losing 0-2 to the York and Lancaster Regiment in 1927.

Nine years later, the 1936 Durand Cup became the most controversial iteration of the tournament pre-independence. Aryans Club, again Kolkata-based, had performed exceptionally well and reached the semi-final of the tournament. Up against the Green Howards, the locals withstood pressure in the first half from the seemingly superior British side and grew into the game as the match went on. 

In the dying minutes, Aryans earned a spot-kick. They scored not once, not twice, but thrice from the spot only for the British referee to rule them out. A sense of injustice rankled among the spectators, who launched a massive protest and then a pitch invasion. The match was abandoned, and a replay was scheduled for the next day. Aryans refused to play, leaving Shimla with accusations of bias towards the British officials. Indian football would have to wait four more years to right this wrong.

Mohammedan Sporting were the unchallenged kings of the Kolkata Maidaan in the 30s, winning five straight Calcutta Football League titles from 1934 to 1938. At a time when Indian politics had assumed a communal nature due to the struggle between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, the feats of Sporting were cherished by the Muslim community in the sub-continent, including a sizeable support base in Delhi.

A crowd of over 100,000 turned up to watch Mohammedan upset Royal Warwickshire Regiment 2-1 with goals from Hafiz Rashid and Saboo. The celebrations were huge, and took place in Lahore and in Dacca, and everywhere in between. The Black Panthers would follow the Durand triumph up with a Rovers Cup victory, to end the decade as Indian football’s best team. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and other prominent Muslim leaders of the time would reference the team in their speeches.

The Durand would take a break for 10 years due to World War II as Hyderabad Police won their first trophy in 1950, defeating Mohun Bagan 1-0 in a replay after the first final was drawn 2-2. That was the first of 3 trophies for Hyderabad Police whose enigmatic coach, Syed Abdul Rahim is the central focus of an upcoming movie (Maidaan), where he will be portrayed by Ajay Devgn.

About 10 teams from the regiments, the Indian Air Force, and the Indian Navy would regularly participate in the 50s. These teams would keep the renowned football clubs on their toes, with their cohesion, levels of fitness, and discipline. Madras Regimental Centre, boasting the legendary Peter Thangaraj, would triumph in 1955 and 1958.

In the latter, they defeated the Gorkha Brigade who would clinch the title themselves eight years later. Border Security Force won the first of their 7 titles in 1968, defeating the mighty East Bengal. To date, they remain the tournament’s third most successful side, behind East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (16 titles each).

For more than a century, the Durand Cup was India’s premier tournament and has been graced by six presidents, from Dr. Rajendra Prasad to Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. It is the world’s third-oldest club football tournament after the English FA Cup (1872) and the Scottish FA Cup (1878), and the oldest in Asia. The Indian Army, who are the current organizers of the Durand Cup, has announced that the Durand Cup will be held in Kolkata for the next five years. 

In today’s day and age, the 130+ years of Durand serve as a reminder to newer generations of the blood, sweat, and tears that accompany its glorious history. Our forefathers had channeled their aggression on the pitch and played against their colonizers as equals, boots or no boots.

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READ: Neeraj Chopra – India’s Pride, Tokyo’s Delight

The 2021 Edition

16 teams will be split into groups of 4, with the top 2 from each group making the quarter-finals. Five sides from the Indian Super League, three I-League teams, and two I-League second division clubs will be joined by 6 institutional and regimental teams.

Group A

Bengaluru United, Central Reserve Police Force, Mohammedan Sporting, and Indian Air Force.

Mohammedan have added one title in 2013 to their famous 1940 triumph and will be looking to make it out of a rather tough group. On home ground, they will face stiff opposition from FC Bengaluru United who is considered a favourite for the upcoming I-League second division qualifiers.

Indian Air Force will be no pushovers though and defeated both Delhi FC and Garhwal FC to win the Delhi Super Division League 2021. A win for them over either FCBU or Mohammedan will throw the group wide open.

Group B

FC Goa, Army Green, Jamshedpur FC, and Sudeva Delhi FC

On paper, this is the toughest group of the four as two ISL sides, Goa and Jamshedpur will battle it out with Sudeva from the I-League.

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FC Goa, who will field a strong squad for the Durand, will look to outline their credentials for the ISL title with a strong showing in the pre-season tournament. Jamshedpur, however, will not make it easy, and neither will Sudeva, who gained plaudits for their displays with an all-Indian side in the I-League 2020-21. Army Green will look to replicate their win from 2016 when they won their first title.

The victor of this group could very well go on to win the entire tournament.

Group C

Bengaluru FC, Delhi FC, Indian Navy, and Kerala Blasters FC

This group will see upstarts Delhi FC challenge the might of Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters FC.

Bengaluru, reeling from a disappointing AFC Cup campaign, will field a reserve side while Kerala Blasters, who have already started their pre-season, have announced their intentions with a strong squad.

Delhi FC, one of the challengers for the I-League second division title, can be in the mix and will fight tooth and nail for a knockout spot. This group could be too close to call and could be decided on the final matchday.

Group D

Assam Rifles, Army Red, Gokulam Kerala, Hyderabad FC

Defending champions Gokulam Kerala will want to outline their title credentials right away with a dominant display in Group D but will have to contend against a plucky Hyderabad FC reserve side.

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Hyderabad FC, whose reserves produced good displays in the I-League second division 2020, will hope to qualify from the group as well.

Matches to look out for

Mohammedan Sporting vs FC Bengaluru United: 14th September

Jamshedpur FC vs Sudeva Delhi: 6th September

Delhi FC vs Bengaluru FC: 18th September

Gokulam Kerala FC vs Hyderabad FC: 16th September

Teams to look out for 

FC Goa

The Gaurs will start as the pre-tournament favorites, eager to win the trophy and laying down a marker for the rest of the season. Suffering an agonizing loss on penalties in the semifinals of the last ISL, Goa should have enough firepower to win group C.

Possessing a young and talented team, a few experienced heads will be thrown into an impressive reserve contingent as Juan Ferrando seeks to win his first trophy after a commendable Asian Champions League campaign.

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FC Bengaluru United

A well-drilled side seeking promotion to the I-League, FC Bengaluru United will want to get a point at least from their match against Mohammedan Sporting. These two sides drew when they last met at the I-League qualifiers in 2020, where the Black Panthers were promoted.

Since then, FCBU has won the BDFA Senior Division and looks likely to mount another challenge in the upcoming qualifiers. Coach Richard Hood, known for his patient possession style, has the likes of Luka Majcen and Pedro Manzi to call upon upfront and will certainly hope that those two can fire Bengaluru’s new boys to an unlikely title.

Gokulam Kerala

Never discount the former champions!

Gokulam starts the tournament as the defending champions and will kick their campaign off against Army Red.

The team from Kerala has a packed calendar this season, including the AFC Cup, and will look to utilize the Durand Cup to test out their strengths and weaknesses. The I-League title will still be fresh in the minds of Vincenzo Alberto Annese and his men, who can certainly mix it up to ensure that lightning does strike twice.

Players to look out for 

Pedro Manzi

The Spanish Conquistador is back on Indian shores and with a different club this time. Manzi’s time at Chennai City is fondly remembered and as part of a fearsome attacking duo with Luka Majcen, he will look to take FCBU to the knockouts.

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Ishan Pandita

Having sealed a move to Jamshedpur FC, it will be paramount for Pandita to get his rhythm going at his new club. In a move that was seen as fulfilling a want for more game-time, the ex-Gaur will look to play a starring role in Jamshedpur’s upcoming ISL campaign.

Harmanjot Khabra

A leader in every dressing room he’s been a part of, Khabra moves to the Blasters after a stellar four seasons with Bengaluru FC. A popular figure in Indian football, he will look at endearing himself to the massive Blasters fanbase with a good showing in the 15th September clash against his former club.

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