In the year 1888, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the then foreign secretary to the government of India, initiated the Durand Cup football tournament at Simla (now Shimla), with an aim to providing recreation to the British troops stationed in India. The tournament was the first of its kind in India and Asia. The inaugural edition of the tournament was lifted by the Royal Scots Fusiliers, beating the Highland Light Infantry by the margin of 2-1 in the final. In the coming years, the tournament would grow in stature and popularity. The first World War would cause a momentary suspension in the tournament from 1914-1919.
The participation of Indian clubs would further add to the popularity of the tournament. In 1940, Mohammedan Sporting Club finally ended the monopoly of British teams in the Durand Cup, beating Royal Warwickshire Regiment 2-1 in the final. However, the involvement of Great Britain in the World War II would once again cause a suspension of the tournament. Once the war ended in 1945, India’s independence movement meant the tournament wouldn’t resume for a few more years.
After partition, Pakistan wanted the tournament to be shifted to Lahore; however the three Service Chiefs and Sh. H.M. Patel, ICS, Defence Secy intervened successfully and resisted the move. The tournament finally restarted in 1950 after being moved to Delhi, with Hyderabad Police winning the title after beating Mohun Bagan in the final. Three trophies were provided to the winners: The President’s Cup, The Durand Cup and the Simla Trophy, with the last two ones being rolling trophies. This tradition continues to this day. The Indian Army were the ones who helped in the revival of the tournament, and have been organizing the event ever since.
The Kolkata duo of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal would go on to dominate Indian football post independence. Durand Cup too, would come under the grasp of these Kolkata giants. Since 1951, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan went on to lift the title 16 times each. Despite Hyderabad-based clubs occasionally winning the title, it was the dominance of the city rivals of Kolkata in the country’s oldest football event that captured the imagination of the followers of the game in the country. In 1977, however, the inception of the Federation Cup meant that Durand Cup fell back a rung in the Indian football ladder. Later in 1996, with calls for more professionalism in Indian football, the initiation of the National Football League forced top clubs of the country to shift their focus away from the lesser rewarding cup competitions.
With the onset of the third millennium, the grip of Kolkatan clubs on the Durand Cup gradually started to loosen. In fact, the only occasion in which a Kolkata-based club has gone on to win the Durand Cup during the past eight seasons was when Prayag United lifted the title in 2010. The fading grip of clubs from the Eastern state on the Indian football scenario has also coincided with the declining importance of the Durand Cup on Indian football in recent years.
The 21st century has seen a rise in the dominance of Goan clubs in Indian football. Seven of the last eight League titles have gone to Goa, with Dempo winning five of them. The NFL has been revamped into the more professional I-League. The Durand Cup, in recent times, has become more of a pre-season warm-up event, with most of the country’s top clubs laying their priorities on the Federation Cup and the I-League. When the Osians took over the management of the tournament in 2006, the financial aspects related to the event began to improve.
However, the Durand Cup has, during these years, struggled to pull audiences into the stadium. Over the past few seasons, with major teams either opting out from the tournament or deciding to send second string sides, fans have become ever more reluctant to go and watch the show unfold. This sad plight of the tournament has resulted in it struggling to find sponsors. The organizers too, have to share part of the blame for these sorry state of affairs. This year, for instance, the tournament has started six days prior to the commencement of the Nehru Cup, which is being held in the same city. This ridiculous scheduling of the tournament means that there won’t be too many spectators once it reaches the latter stages, with a vast majority of the local football aficionados of Delhi gearing up to watch the Nehru Cup. All these factors have ensured that the Durand Cup receives minimal coverage from the country’s mainstream media. It is no surprise then, that most of the games of the ongoing edition of the Durand Cup have been played infront of empty stands at the Ambedkar Stadium. Micromax, who were supposed to sponsor the tournament, pulled out at the last moment. Fortunately for the organisers, Anglian Holdings, the Dubai-based company that has partial ownership of Indian top-division club Shillong Lajong FC, came forward to rescue them.
Over the years, football has gained tremendous popularity throughout the country. However, as some much-needed professionalism creeps into the Indian football industry, it is also important that the country preserves its oldest football competition. The Durand Cup assumes great significance in the history of Indian football. For the greater good of the game in the country, the fans, media and organisers must join their hands together in helping to keep alive the Durand Cup; otherwise, the future doesn’t bode well for the world’s third oldest football tournament.
Note: Photos courtesy of barefootmag.in and durandfootball.com