The Durand Cup saw a successful completion of its 130th edition in Kolkata with a new champion in FC Goa.
More than finding a new champion in the Indian Super League club, which won its second national-level crown after the Super Cup, the 133-year-old tournament brought back football fans in the stadium. This was a reassuring development for sports in the country which is yet to return to ‘normalcy’ as it continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
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For the final, 34,000 (roughly 50 percent of the seating capacity) spectators thronged the Salt Lake Stadium. The venue throbbed with life once again as persistent roars from the galleries egged the local favourite Mohammedan Sporting to upstage the might of FC Goa. The result didn’t go according to the script as FC Goa defeated Sporting in extra-time. But the final did bring back the usual sights and sounds of football in Kolkata.
Familiar sight: Fans were allowed to watch the matches in the stadium from quarterfinals of the Durand Cup football tournament in Kolkata. – LOC 130th Durand Cup
The vociferous fans did spur Sporting to rise to the challenge in the semifinal as it recovered from a goal deficit to beat FC Bengaluru United 4-2 in extra-time. FC Goa got the better of a half-strength Bengaluru FC through penalties in the other semifinal.
The roster was interesting with five teams from ISL, three from I-League, and two from I-League Second Division. There were also five regimental sides in the tournament organised by the Indian Army on behalf of the defence services.
The competition offered the ISL teams a reasonably fair match experience within their planned pre-season build-up. ISL sides like Jamshedpur FC, Kerala Blasters, Hyderabad FC, and even Bengaluru FC preferred to field players drawn mostly from the reserve squads, but FC Goa arrived with an almost a full-strength squad including its foreign players and coach Juan Ferrando.
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The decision paid off as the Gaurs earned the silverware to throttle up the tempo at the start of the season. This may come in handy in their search for the elusive ISL crown.
“I think the trophy was very important for the team as it will increase our confidence at the start of the season. We had planned to win all the trophies this season. It feels nice that we have taken the right step forward,” FC Goa captain Edu Bedia said after the win.
For a tournament that prides itself as the oldest in Asia and the third oldest in the world, history alone cannot keep it relevant.
Wide reach: The 130th edition of the Durand Cup witnessed the participation of five teams from ISL, three from I-League, two from I-League Second Division and five regimental teams. – LOC 130th Durand Cup
The military brass responsible for organising the tournament was rightly advised to reposition the Durand Cup both in terms of location and time. It was justifiably moved to Kolkata, one of the nerve centres of the sport in the country after the Government of West Bengal agreed to co-host it.
Simultaneously, the AIFF also conceded to the proposal of having the tournament at the start of the season. The result was quite encouraging, and it gave the organising committee every reason to expand its format to incorporate 24 teams from the next season.
Durand Cup gets a makeover
After seeing years of struggle where it kept shifting places in search of support, Durand Cup has finally found its new home in Kolkata, which is giving the 133-year-old tournament all the reasons to feel rejuvenated, says Lt General K.K. Repswal, the Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, and the chairman of the tournament’s organising committee. The success of the 130th edition of the tournament was a great relief for the organiser as football came out of the strict confines of the ‘bio-bubble’ and opened the gates for the spectators for the first time since the pandemic hit the country.
When asked about the possibility of the Durand Cup becoming a regular pre-season tournament, the Lt General Repswal responded in the affirmative. “Before we started our preparation for the 130th edition, we connected with the All India Football Federation top brass including its president Praful Patel and general secretary Kushal Das. We also interacted with FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited) people in Mumbai and the broadcaster Star Sports to ensure that we became a part of the football ecosystem. Everyone wanted Durand Cup to become the season-opening tournament,” he said.
The Durand Cup will have an expanded format from the next edition, says Lt General Repswal. “We were very keen to have the tournament this year as 2021 is being celebrated all over the country as the Swarnim Vijay Varsh. I am very confident we will have at least 24 teams, if not 28 teams, in Durand Cup from next season. We are also planning to move some of the pool matches out of Kolkata and have them in Siliguri, Guwahati, Shillong, and other areas in the North East. The teams will move to Kolkata from the quarterfinal stage,” he said.