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Ill-timed Durand Cup still a hit with fans at new venue

Jaydeep Basu

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Football-loving Kolkata crowd have thronged to the grounds to watch Durand Cup action.

New Delhi: For the soccer fans in Delhi (and be assured their numbers are not too small), it came as a double blow in the last couple of weeks. First, the age-old Durand Cup has been revived, but not at its traditional venue, the Ambedkar Stadium at Delhi Gate. It is currently in progress in Kolkata and surrounding towns.

Then came the news of Delhi’s franchise outfit shifting their base to Bhubaneswar. Apparently, lack of crowd support in the last few seasons has forced them to move out. The capital now has no role to play in big time football.

Durand Cup this time is ill-timed and ill-scheduled, thanks to permission granted by the authorities. Durand and the Calcutta Football League (the local league in Kolkata) are being played simultaneously. A league and a short spanned knock out tournament being clubbed together adds to the problems of trophy-oriented teams.

Thus this double duty is causing huge problems for local teams, especially the three Kolkata majors, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Yet, thousands throng the ground every day now to watch Durand matches. Delhi’s loss seems Kolkata’s gain.

Reports suggest there were close to 15,000 people at the East Bengal ground when the home side opened campaign. A good number of people waited outside as they had no clue about buying online tickets. Similar enthusiasm was noticed during Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting matches.

Well, it’s time to call spade a spade. It is no secret that quality of organisation in Durand Cup this time is not exactly the best in the world. Teams, coaches, officials and even media have complaints. Still, Durand Cup 2019 is hugely successful. Because it has the crowd support, the biggest sign of prosperity for any soccer meet.

Old timers would scoff at this. Durand Cup in the past had always witnessed packed houses in Delhi, they would rightly say. But is it baffling that the same crowd in Delhi never got transferred at the Nehru Stadium when the franchise side began its journey with pomp and gaiety.

Important people attended matches. Glamorous film stars waved at the spectators. Hired youngsters swayed their hips and sang during outings. Yet the crowd got thinner and thinner. It was reduced to few hundreds in some matches. The best and honest efforts by the organisers did not yield result.

Success of football in modern era, a former Paris Saint-Germain president once said, is all about orgnisation. He was not wrong. Football, after all, is pure entertainment. But not the world’s only entertainment. To compete with others, it has to pull up its socks.

In Indian context, doubts still prevail sometimes. Franchise football here spent lavishly on organisation of matches, at least four times more than average spending in I-League.

Yet Delhi stadium looked deserted last season. Guwahati organisers are deeply worried. So are Kolkata and Pune. But with similar organisational efforts, Goa are thriving, Kochi sitting comfortable.

So, what brings crowd to the ground, actually? A veteran All India Football Federation (AIFF) official said: “It is the connect with football and teams that attracts spectators. In cricket’s IPL, players like Virat Kohli or Mahendra Singh Dhoni are roots of success.

“They are far bigger stars than people occupying VIP gallery seats with dark sunglasses on. Of course, the orgnisers must be complimented for their tremendous packaging skills.”

Looking at ongoing Durand Cup, he seems right. The weather is unfriendly, the organisation has loopholes. Most matches are scheduled at 3pm in the afternoon. Teams are reluctant to field their top players.

Still, a large number of people are always present to cheer their favourite teams. There is no need to flash inflated figures on electronic boards.

Indian soccer fans are like one of those strange phenomena. To tap them, one needs different tactics, unorthodox efforts, not the copy-paste approach.