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Lot at stake for favourites EB

New Delhi: India’s oldest football tournament, the Durand Cup, kicks off here on Thursday, without a title sponsor for its 115th edition. There is also concern about the confirmation of 16-time champions Mohun Bagan.

The seven National Football League (NFL) teams, participating, are likely to be depleted, with star players in the India camp for the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championships to be held in Dhaka early next year. National coach Stephen Constantine will announce his list of probables on Thursday.

Before the commencement of the NFL, in the 1996-97 season, the Durand used to be Indian football’s showpiece meet. Now the NFL teams use the meet to try out their bench strength and new combinations.

Faced with such dilution, the Durand Cup organisers deserve credit for still being able to attract top teams with quite a big prize money on offer. The winning team will get Rs. 4 lakh, the runners up Rs. 2 lakh and the losing semi-finalists Rs. 1 lakh each.

The new organising secretary Lt. Col. Bhupendra Singh, who played for George Town Allahabad in the 1970 edition, is confident Mohun Bagan will participate. He hopes the imbroglio between Bagan secretary Anjan Mitra and his Indian Football Association (IFA) counterpart Ranjit Gupta, gets sorted out in time. In case Bagan withdraw, Goa’s Churchill Brothers will fill in.

Eighteen teams will take part this year, including eight in the preliminaries.

East Bengal have not won the tournament since1995. This is the longest time-span since Independence that Calcutta’s glamour club has been without a Durand title. Though they will be without some key players, East Bengal, coached by Subhash Bhowmick, should start favourites. It is a chance for Bhowmick to try out more attacking combinations and improve East Bengal’s record in this tournament.

As a player and coach, Bhowmick does not have many happy memories of the tournament. During his playing days in the 1970s he thrice finished runners-up, with Mohun Bagan in 1970, ’72 and ’78. He was on the winning side just once, when Mohun Bagan beat JCT 2-1 in the 1977 final with Bhowmick scoring a gem of a goal.

As East Bengal coach, Bhowmick lost the 1999 Durand final via the penalty shoot-out to Salgaocar, Goa. Thus, Bhowmick and East Bengal have a lot to prove in this year’s edition of the tournament.

The Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya, however, has much happier memories of the tournament. As a player he won the title with Bagan on seven occasions — in 1974, ’77, ’79, ’80, ’82, ’85 and 1986. As coach, he helped Bagan win the Durand title in 2000.

Mohammedan Sporting’s coach Mohammed Habeeb is the only player ever to have scored the match winner in the Durand final on three occasions. He helped East Bengal win in 1967, 1970 and 1972, scoring in the finals against BNR and Bagan (in both 1970 and 72).

Later he won the Durand tournament with Bagan in 1977. As coach, Habib guided Tata Football Academy(TFA) to the Durand final in 1995 but they lost to East Bengal. So, Habib will also be striving to win his first Durand title as a coach.

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