A galaxy of stars beckon football fans of the capital to the Ambedkar Stadium here as the quarterfinal league of the 122nd edition of the Durand Cup kicks off on Friday with the clash between Army XI and Air India.
Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Assam Rifles came through the qualifying rounds to join the big league that includes Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan along with Dempo Sports Club and Sporting Clube de Goa.
Defending champion Mahindra United has been placed with East Bengal and Lajong FC while Churchill Brothers, the losing finalist, will fight it out with Sporting Clube de Goa and Assam Rifles.
The presence of these top clubs will lend quality to the Durand Cup which suffered a loss in revenue and stature following non-participation of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan from 2006, the year Dempo Sports Club won the title.
The return of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan will be a throwback to the glorious times when Durand Cup was considered the most important part of Delhi’s football calendar. Of course, the fans would miss the two heroes of India’s recent Nehru Cup triumph -- Baichung Bhutia and Subrata Paul -- in this edition.
Bhutia is locked in a legal battle with Mohun Bagan, which has not released him after the National captain contested his club’s decision to suspend him on disciplinary grounds. Bhutia, however, has requested the case to be solved in time to facilitate his Durand Cup participation for East Bengal.
Paul will not be seen in action since his club, Pune FC, does not figure in the line-up.
Among the many foreign players, Ranty Martins of Dempo and Edeh Chidi of Mohun Bagan would be the stars to follow. Mohun Bagan’s ace Brazilian striker, Jose Ramirez Barreto’s availability remains uncertain due to an injury.
Fans in Delhi can expect some lively action in the coming days as the cream of India’s professional football assembles to showcase its wares in one of the world’s oldest tournaments.
Group I: Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa and Assam Rifles; Group II: Mohun Bagan, JCT and ONGC; Group III: Dempo SC, Air India and Army XI; Group IV: East Bengal, Mahindra United and Lajong FC.
Sept. 11: Army XI vs Air India; Sept. 12: Sporting Clube de Goa vs Assam Rifles; Sept. 13: JCT vs ONGC; Sept. 14: Mahindra vs Lajong, Dempo vs Air India; Sept. 15: Sporting Clube vs Churchill; Sept. 16: Mohun Bagan vs ONGC, East Bengal vs Lajong; Sept. 17: Churchill vs Assam Rifles, Dempo vs Army XI; Sept. 18: East Bengal vs Mahindra, Mohun Bagan vs JCT; Sept. 18: Semifinal: Winner Group I vs Winner Group III; Sept. 19: Semifinal: Winner Group II vs Winner Group IV; Sept. 22: Final.