Durand Cup meant Delhi. Durand Cup meant oranges under the mild winter sun, samosas with piping hot chai, the Ambedkar Stadium canteen. Durand Cup meant Bengalis from CR Park, Muslims from Old Delhi, Punjabis from Daryagunj.
A tournament for which different communities of the capital used to wait to get together and root for their favourite teams.
It was also the last major tournament of the year.
Durand Cup now comes to Calcutta, the city of football, but in monsoon. The first match will be played between Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting on Friday at the Salt Lake Stadium.
What used to be the last tournament of the year becomes a pre-season tournament of 2019-2020.
“Durand Cup made me what I am as a footballer,” says Dipendu Biswas, who swept the awards in 1995 as a TFA footballer. TFA those days were under the legendary Mohammed Habib and they beat Mohun Bagan in the semis before losing to East Bengal in the sudden death of the final. “What impact it had on the Indian football scene,” Dipendu says. “The Tata Football Academy announced its arrival.”
Started in 1888, Durand Cup, hosted by the army and organised by the Durand Cup Society, is the third oldest tournament in the world after the FA Cup in England and the Scottish Cup. It used to be held in Shimla (then Simla) and in 1940 moved to New Delhi. Mohammedan Sporting became the first Indian team that year to lift the trophy, though they would have to wait a good 73 years to get a hand on the cup again, in 2013 by which time the tournament had lost much of its glitz.
Old-timers say Durand Cup is to Indian football what Wimbledon is to tennis. That was mainly because of Wing Commander KK Ganguly, a football lover, who made Durand the most coveted trophy. Presidents of India used to be the chief guest in the finals.
At the interval, the President would have tea with the two captains. Legend goes that Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had told then Mohun Bagan captain Chuni Goswami: “I seem to meet you often.” Bagan were champions from 1963 to 1965. Durand was also the first tournament to introduce prize money way back in 1987.
The tournament started losing its appeal with the advent of the National Football League in 1996-97. Even then in the 1997 edition, I.M. Vijayan in a FC Kochi shirt produced one of the most magical displays in Indian football by single-handedly destroying Mohammedan Sporting 5-0.
In the final, FC Kochi, under George Blues, beat Amal Dutta’s “diamond” Mohun Bagan 3-1. FC Kochi goalkeeper Sumit Mukherjee wore an East Bengal jersey “just to scare off Bagans”.
Dipendu says Vijayan was in a class of his own that year. “Joe Paul Ancheri, Carlton Chapman, Friday Elahiyo, all were there... But what Vijayan did was simply amazing,” Dipendu said.
Maidan legend Shyam Thapa also has fond memories of the Durand Cup. “It was the 1980 final (Mohun Bagan) versus Mohammedan Sporting. Pradip Choudhury was injured. I played the final as a defender alongside Subrata Bhattacharya. Mohammedan Sporting that year made a great team.
“Bhaskar Ganguly, Surajit Sengupta... But we won. Prasun (Banerjee) sent a ball to Bidesh (Bose) and he scored,” Thapa said.
This year, 16 teams will take part in the tournament, which will be held from August 2-24, in Kalyani, Howrah and Calcutta. Six I-League and six ISL teams are participating along with four from the Services, Army Red, holders Army Green, Indian Navy and Indian Air Force (IAF).
In this age of limited matches, Durand Cup gives an opportunity to the I-League as well as ISL clubs to play some competitive football. “Some matches after all,” was how an ISL team official put it.