East Bengal emerges champion

EAST BENGAL won the Durand Cup for the 15th time in Delhi. The Kolkata side beat Army XI, making its maiden appearance in the final, by three second-half goals without reply for the coveted title.

K. P. MOHAN

EAST BENGAL won the Durand Cup for the 15th time in Delhi. The Kolkata side beat Army XI, making its maiden appearance in the final, by three second-half goals without reply for the coveted title.

The victorious East Bengal team with the trophy. — Pic. S. Subramanium-

In a depleted field, with Mohun Bagan and the defending champion, Mahindras being late withdrawals, there were not many clear favourites for the trophy.

Yet, if you were the betting type you would have put the money on one of the two Kolkata giants. Despite rekindling the interest among the horde of its fans, the other Kolkata side, Mohammedan Sporting, failed to make the final, losing to Army XI in the tie-breaker of the semifinal. The Durand has had a charm of its own in Indian football. Being the oldest tournament in Asia, it was always a trophy that the top teams looked forward to winning. The charm might be wearing thin, what with the National Football League taking the centrestage and the top teams expected to release their stars for National duty.

As such, East Bengal came without eight of its frontline players, six of them away with the Indian team, getting ready then for the SAFF tournament in Dhaka. Salgaocar, Goa, at the losing end against East Bengal in the semifinal, was no better in this respect. Coupled with the restriction on the number of foreign players being entered (maximum of three entered with two in the line-up of 18 for any match), it was difficult for the top teams to forge a winning combination.

Subhash Bhowmick, himself a star player for East Bengal many summers ago, at the very same Ambedkar Stadium, played the right card at the right moment in the final. After a goalless first half, he brought in Tushar Rakshit in the midfield in the 18th minute of the second half and within three minutes the veteran laid an exquisite pass for Mike Okoro to score. Once the deadlock was broken, East Bengal found easier way to two more goals including one from a penalty.

Okoro was East Bengal's star player through the competition and was named the Pepsi `Man of the Tournament'. The Nigerian was precise in his passing and movements and when it came to the finish, he was invariably on target. Another foreigner who shone for East Bengal was midfielder Douglas D' Silva.

Army XI, without any of the big names, but fighting well as a unit, did begin well in the final but the three goals within the space of 11 minutes, shattered it completely. The first Army team to make the final, since Gorkha Brigade won the cup in 1969, Army XI was well served by its goalkeeper Abun Gobi Singh, defenders L. Angam and Johny Gangmei, midfielders Pradip Debnath and Irudayaraj and forwards Preetam Bahadur and Raghu Kumar.

The Man of the Tournament, Mike Okoro, being hugged by teammates Malsamwtluanga and Shasty Duley, after he scored the first goal in the final. -- Pic.S. Subramanium.-

Abun Gobi Singh was eventually chosen as one of the five promising players of the tournament, the others being Malswama (Tata Football Academy), Syed Ibrahim Nabi (Mohammedan Sporting), Cowan Lawrence (Salgaocar) and Harpreet Singh (JCT).

The Army XI goalkeeper was the star in the team's victory over Mohammedan Sporting, bringing off a few saves in regular time and then effecting the crucial save in the tie-breaker. Despite a number of chances, Mohammedan Sporting failed to clinch the issue, leaving the large number of its fans disappointed.

The crowd response to the tournament, expected to improve with the return of Mohammedan Sporting, after a gap of five years, remained below par once the Kolkata side was eliminated.

From among the other teams, TFA, Jamshedpur, impressed. The young boys gave a torrid time to Mohammedan Sporting before bowing out. Though they performed well against JCT, Phagwara, the end result, a 0-2 loss, was beyond repair for the rest of the three-team league phase. JCT lost the showdown with Mohammedan Sporting, Dipendu Biswas scoring an early goal and his side holding onto it, though dangerously. Mohammed Habib's boys seemed to have found the touch in this tough match, but the semifinal against Army XI revealed its drawbacks.

TFA, as in the past, paraded a wealth of talent. Mention must be made of its two outstanding forwards, Malswama and Jehry Jirsangha. Their speed, positioning, passing and shot-making were a treat to watch. Alas, TFA could not progress beyond the quarterfinal league phase. Between the two Goan sides, Salgaocar looked the better one, but performed well below par in the semifinal against East Bengal. The other Goan team, Vasco, after suffering a loss to Army XI pulled off a victory over Indian Telephone Industries (ITI) Bangalore, but it proved futile.

Madras Engineering Group (MEG), Bangalore, brought off an upset win over East Bengal in the league phase, but it mattered little in a three-way tie in the pool, with the Kolkata side going through on goal difference. The other team in the pool was Air-India, a last-minute entry to fill in for Mahindras.