Salgaocar is the champion

IF you are the best, better be prepared to take the load. It is another matter that eventually you may end up carrying only the load, and not the trophy!

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IF you are the best, better be prepared to take the load. It is another matter that eventually you may end up carrying only the load, and not the trophy!

The Salgaocar team with the Durand Cup. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

East Bengal was easily the best football club in the country, and it had two of the best strikers in the business in Baichung Bhutia and Mike Okoro. Yet, the hectic season had taken so much out of the duo, that the two were pedestrian in what proved to be the anticlimax for the team in the 116th edition of the second oldest football tournament in the world, the Durand Cup.

Bhutia and Okoro missed the penalty one after the other in the tie-break, off the team's last two attempts, leaving Salgaocar Club, Goa, a creditable winner. It was the second time the Goan club was claiming the prestigious trophy, the first having come in 1999. It was once again at the expense of East Bengal, a 15-time champion, following a similar shoot-off exercise.

While goalkeeper Rajat Ghosh Dastidar was easily the toast of the Salgaocar Club for his commendable saves, both during the regular play and the penalty shoot-out, East Bengal firmly believed that it had crossed the breakpoint, after a string of national and international commitments in an energy-sapping season.

The National Football League champion, and the champion of the Asean Club championship, East Bengal had aired its displeasure about having to go through the grind in Durand, immediately after the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad.

While the national captain Bhutia was also upset about the standard of arrangements made for the team in the Capital, though the organisers had done well to arrange prize money of Rs. 4 lakhs for the winner, Rs. 2 lakhs for the runner-up and Rs. 1 lakh each to the semifinalists, the general refrain was that Durand was losing out on popularity.

It was firmly believed that the tournament was being conducted just to ensure continuity, and not with the pride that is required when dealing with an event that was first played as far back as in 1888 in the winter capital of the British Raj, Shimla.

Salgaocar's goalkeeper Rajat Ghosh Dastidar dives to his left to stop the penalty kick by East Bengal's star striker Bhaichung Bhutia in the final. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Obviously, Bhutia and company were not putting their heart into the game, and the best player of the country was not played in the semifinal against Air India, and till eight minutes into the second half in the final.

Air India, a replacement for Mohun Bagan, had sneaked into the semifinal at the expense of a relatively better team, Vasco Club, Goa. Thus there was little trouble for East Bengal in spanking three goals, though it missed a dozen in that semifinal. Even the erratic Okoro, the talented Nigerian, who was struggling to cope with the emotionally devastating experience of losing his baby recently, was able to find the target in that mismatch.

That easy outing, however, proved its undoing for East Bengal, as the team was not prepared to tackle a team of considerable ability such as Salgaocar, that played well within its limitations. The Salgaocar midfield was outstanding with three national players asserting their efficiency.

If the East Bengal team wanted to win the trophy, it should have been able to wrest the initiative in the first half itself, as Salgaocar was playing with energy as the match progressed. East Bengal looked to have messed it up as it kept Bhutia on the sidelines for 53 minutes, allowing its rival to settle down.

Bhutia did cause a stir on entry, but he could not make a dent in his stay of more than an hour on field, as the Salgaocar defence allowed little breathing space for the talented Sikkim lad, who had regaled the spectators with his opportunism, a fine understanding of the game and clinical execution, in the league.

East Bengal did find the equaliser two minutes after Salgaocar had shot ahead early in the second half, but as the match meandered into the tie-break, the team lacked that zeal to tilt the balance in its favour.

Salgaocar had got past the Federation Cup champion Mahindra United in the semifinals 2-1 after conceding the first goal. The team had tackled the Tata Football Academy (TFA) with a rare touch of assurance in cruising to a 4-1 win and had quelled the challenge from the crowd favourite Mohammedan Sporting 2-0.

The Salgaocar team thus richly deserved to be the champion, in a field that boasted as many as nine members of the National League. Yes, there was no Mohun Bagan but there was JCT, Army XI, Dempo, Vasco, Indian Bank from Chennai, trying to make their presence felt.

Even the qualifier Jammu and Kashmir Bank, its goalkeeper Vikramjeet Singh in particular, did play the part well.

The final had a terrific atmosphere with 90 per cent of the seats taken, but there was an overall indifferent response from the spectators in this edition. Maybe, it was because of Ramzan. Maybe, it was because the matches were cramped in a tight fashion over nine days. Maybe, the qualifying event was not a good enough build up for the main event.

Whatever it may have been, there was a general misgiving that the tournament was not living up to its status. In an age, when the best possible arrangements for the teams and a neat packaging to the television make a football event a spectacle, Durand did not even have the patronage of the National television, Doordarshan, as there was no coverage. There were news channels, capturing the clips, but Durand really looked to have aged.

As Bhutia suggested, the Army may have to change its approach towards holding the event, otherwise, it may end up nursing fond memories, the splendour of the past, and little else.

Maybe, money from television can revive the tournament and help it retain its status. But in a tight calendar, where there is no beginning and no end, and everything happens in a vicious cycle, there are few who care two hoots for tradition and rich history.

To that end, Durand Cup looks to have lost its race with time. Well, the President of the country may breathe some life into the event by watching the final and presenting the trophies, as some of the earlier Presidents did in Independent India. At least, that is what the connoisseurs believe.