Asia’s oldest football tournament returns to the Indian calendar once more, as the 132nd edition of the Durand Cup kicks off on August 3, also signalling the start of the 2023-24 Indian football club season. With 24 teams featuring in three cities across 43 games, this edition has plenty to offer.
Here’s everything you need to know:
A new guise for the Durand Cup
After being certified by the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) for the first time last season, the 2023 edition of the Durand Cup also features foreign teams for the first time in 27 years – with the army teams of Nepal and Bangladesh being invited to take part. All 12 Indian Super League (ISL) clubs, five I-League clubs, three Indian Armed Forces teams, one I-League 2 club and one regional league club represent the Indian contingent, rounding it off to 24 teams (up from 20 last year).
The tournament will also be held in multiple cities [Kolkata (four stadiums), Guwahati and Kokrajhar] for only the second time (last season being the first). Despite all the changes, the three trophies presented to the winners remain a constant – the President’s Cup, the Simla Cup and the Durand Cup.
What is the format and schedule?
The tournament begins on August 3, with 24 teams split into groups of six. All the group-winners will progress into the quarterfinals (starting August 24) as well as the two best runners-up. The final will take place on September 3 at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, which will also host the opening game of the tournament, featuring Mohun Bagan Super Giant and Bangladesh Army.
What happened last year?
Bengaluru FC, under new boss Simon Grayson, and with Sivasakthi Narayanan blossoming as a centre-forward, defeated a full-strength Mumbai City FC to win their first trophy in four years. It proved to be a preview for the ISL too, as BFC defeated MCFC in the semifinals once more, before going down on penalties to ATK Mohun Bagan.
Rajasthan United also provided plenty of shocks, defeating Bagan (in its ATK-era) and drawing East Bengal en route to qualifying for the knockouts.
The state of the squads
Given the potential scheduling conflicts that may arise due to the Asian Games and the start of the ISL, many clubs might be predisposed to fielding their reserve teams. Odisha FC already confirmed an all-Indian, youthful squad aimed at promoting local talent – which will not be overseen by new manager Sergio Lobera, but rather reserves’ boss Amit Rana.
– Odisha FC (@OdishaFC) July 31, 2023
East Bengal are a club at the other end of the spectrum, that’ve registered their new foreign signings for the Durand Cup, with new boss Carles Cuadrat likely to make a push for a trophy (and end with a strong squad.)
Plenty of clubs have yet to announce their squads, although the non-ISL teams are expected to field their strongest sides.
Who are the favourites?
It’s the usual suspects – with the non-ISL clubs unlikely to go deep in the competition. It is learnt that defending champions Bengaluru FC might field a reserve side, although Grayson’s ability to maximize his resources is well known. The Kolkata giants who last won in 2004 (East Bengal) and 2000 (Mohun Bagan) are the two most successful clubs in the history of the Durand Cup (16-time winners), and are likely to feature full-strength teams, which will keep them in the mix. Mumbai City FC ought to be favourites for any Indian football competition, but the likes of FC Goa might also be dark horses.
What to look out for?
Conveniently, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are in the same group, with the Kolkata Derby scheduled for August 12th at the Salt Lake stadium. It’s barely been a competitive fixture of late, but East Bengal’s appointment of ISL-winning manager Cuadrat, coupled with some impressive signings might see the trend reverse.
However, Juan Ferrando has strengthened his side with the signings of Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad and Anwar Ali as well as A-League star Jason Cummings – Bagan underlining the Super Giant in their name with a fearsome squad.
Unfiltered, raw and straight from the ground. Watch as new signings Jason Cummings, Anirudh Thapa and Armando Sadiku are presented in front of the fans for the first time! #MBSG #JoyMohunBagan #আমরাসবুজমেরুন pic.twitter.com/E4p6QiSyHS
– Mohun Bagan Super Giant (@mohunbagansg) July 26, 2023
THE grudge match in Indian football after the Kolkata Derby is now Bengaluru FC vs Kerala Blasters, who face each other on August 18. However, the neutral environs as well the fact that both teams are likely to field reserves may take the sting out of this game. Ivan Vukomanovic, still serving an AIFF ban, will also be absent.
Punjab FC, the latest entrant into the ISL are grouped with Bagan, East Bengal and Bangladesh Army – and face a tough test of their top-flight credentials. Gokulam Kerala, who finished third in Punjab’s I-League winning campaign, are placed alongside Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters and Indian Air Force – and could surprise a few if the ISL teams aren’t at full strength.
FC Goa, who’ve welcomed Manolo Marquez to the club, are in a favourable group (NorthEast United, Downtown Heroes, Shillong Lajong). With some major signings like Sandesh Jhingan, Goa face an intriguing future, especially with Marquez’s ability to improve his youth players.
The Durand Cup will be broadcast on the Sony Sports Network and will be live-streamed on SonyLIV.