Come Tuesday, the Indian football calendar will officially begin with the historic Durand Cup. All the top teams of the country will be in combat mode ahead of a gruelling league season.
The 131st edition of Asia’s oldest and world’s third-oldest football tournament has gained in importance this time as it is now a recognised tournament in the Asian Football Confederation’s list of competitions. This has meant that all 11 Indian Super League teams and the top five I-League teams (except Gokulam Kerala FC) are taking part.
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With most of the sides busy with transfer business in the last couple of months, fans will be eager to see how their teams have shaped up for the battles ahead.
Joining the top clubs will be the four Services outfits which takes the total count to 20 teams this time. The teams will be divided in four groups of five teams each in the initial group league stage, which will be held in three cities – Kolkata (hosting two groups), Guwahati and Imphal.
The first match of the tournament will see the reigning champion FC Goa take on local giant Mohammedan Sporting SC in a repeat of the last year’s final, at Salt Stadium. The tournament will be inaugurated by Chief Minister of Bengal Mamata Banerjee, and the organisers – the combination of the three services led by Indian Army and Government of West Bengal – are hoping that President Droupadi Murmu will give her consent to the request of being present for the final (scheduled on September 18).
FC Goa, Mohammedan Sporting, Bengaluru FC, Jamshedpur FC and Indian Air Force make up Group A, the group of real heavyweights, and will be based in Kolkata. With only the top two teams moving to the knockout stage (quarterfinals) from the group league, the competition is expected to be quite intense in this group.
The Group B is also based in Kolkata. This group will be the popular choice because of the presence of traditional rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, who have been clubbed together to heighten the excitement.
The other three teams are the former ISL champion Mumbai City FC, I-League side Rajasthan United FC, and Indian Navy. The Salt Lake Stadium and the newly renovated Kishore Bharati Stadium will be the two venues in Kolkata.
Group C will be based in Imphal (Khuman Lampak Stadium) and will have the defending and former ISL champions – Hyderabad FC and Chennaiyin FC – attracting attention. The two local sides NEROCA FC and TRAU FC are expected to give a good fight alongside Army Red, which is the fifth team.
Guwahati will be hosting Group D (Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium) where the challenge will be led by the three-time ISL runner-up Kerala Blasters. The Kerala side will be facing the challenge from the likes of Odisha FC and the local favourite NorthEast United FC, which has spruced up the roster at the start of the season. I-League side Sudeva Delhi FC and Army Green are the other two sides in the group.