Asia’s oldest football meet shifts cities, gets top teams
In the absence of a reserve league, ISL sides are using the Durand Cup to give their all-Indian second teams game time.Updated: Aug 02, 2019, 09:41 IST
That the Durand Cup, which begins here on Friday with 16 teams, left New Delhi, its home since 1950 barring a trip to Goa in 2014, is a sign of it not being the best of times for Asia’s oldest football tournament.
But that it has been revived after two years, has come to a city passionate about football, and has got reigning champions of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League to take part is proof that this isn’t the worst of times either.
“Scheduling it at the start of the season is the best slot possible for the Durand Cup. It gives teams an opportunity to test new players through three-four competitive matches that the format promises,” says Shaji Prabhakaran, president Football Delhi, on Thursday.
In the absence of a reserve league, ISL sides are using the Durand Cup to give their all-Indian second teams game time. “We managed over 40 games for our development squad (age-group 18-22) last season and it happened without the Durand. So, the Durand Cup being revived is a bonus for us. We are looking to draft four players from the Durand Cup squad to the main team. For India to be competitive, we need over 40 games for our reserve teams and it isn’t right that we are only ones doing that. So, the more such tournaments, the better,” says Ravi Puskur, head of technical operations at FC Goa, which are among the five ISL teams taking part in the competition that began in 1888.
Like ISL runners-up FC Goa, champions Bengaluru FC too are looking to give the second team a run out though they will also have six players—Parag Shrivas, Edmund Lalrindika, Ajay Chhetri, Gursimrat Singh Gill, Aditya Patra and Sairuat Kima—who were part of the last ISL. They have been training for nearly three weeks under Naushad Moosa.
For many I-League teams—six have been invited—the approach is different. “This is a chance to show what we are made of,” says T Phulen Meitei, CEO TRAU FC, the second division champions and I-League newbies from Imphal, only half in jest. “It will also be a test for our players who will feel firsthand the gap between the top level and the second division,” he says. The team has been training for one month and has signed former Bengaluru FC striker Robin Singh, says Meitei.
And though Royal Kashmir FC are assembling in Kolkata on Saturday, co-owner Sandeep Chattoo says they are bringing their first team including fresh signing Kallum Higginbotham, 30, who has had a long career in Scotland. “This is a very prestigious tournament and we are taking it very seriously,” says Chattoo.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, 16-time champions both, will play the Durand Cup and the Kolkata league simultaneously and with almost the full complement of their players including foreigners.
“We have trained for one month (including a stint in Goa). In two months, we will be better than tomorrow but we are looking forward to doing well in both the Durand Cup and the league,” says Mohun Bagan’s Spanish coach Kibu Vicuna ahead of Friday’s opener against Mohammedan Sporting. Mohun Bagan will have two-three players from their academy in the 18 on Friday, says Vicuna.
ATK, FC Goa, Bengaluru FC and TRAU use local leagues to test skills and temperament of reserve teams. ATK have already started their Kolkata league campaign, in the second-highest tier but the leagues in Goa, Bengaluru and Manipur will kick-off next month. BFC reserves played 27 games last term and ATK 28.
Be it for providing games to reserve teams or getting ready for a new season—the ISL and I-League are scheduled to start late October—the 129th Durand Cup is more relevant than it has been since national leagues began dominating the football landscape.
“For its historical significance, Durand Cup should be kept alive. It would be great if the tournament came back to Delhi because there is a strong emotional connect. The AIFF should ensure it doesn’t keep moving within a season,” says Prabhakaran.
Teams in 129th Durand Cup
From ISL: ATK, Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin FC, Jamshedpur FC, FC Goa.
From I-League: Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Chennai City FC, Gokulam Kerala FC, TRAU FC, Real Kashmir FC.
Remaining teams: Mohammedan Sporting, Indian Navy, Army Green, Army Red, Indian Air Force.