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Derby semifinal finally puts fading IFA Shield back into the limelight

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Historically the IFA Shield is the fourth oldest cup competition in the world, and second oldest in Asia and India after the Durand Cup. But like the Durand Cup, the IFA Shield, which is organised by the governing body of Bengal football, is no longer a priority for even the top clubs of Kolkata.

The interest in the tournament has declined in the recent past, which is understandable because of the presence of a full-fledged domestic national league, which wasn’t the case for the first 103 years of the tournament. But considering the rich history of this competition, it is painful to see its current state; hopefully, Sunday’s semi-final between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan will act as its oxygen.

The two most successful sides of this competition, with 49 titles between them will actually be meeting for the first time in the tournament since 27 November 2005 when East Bengal ran out 4-1 winners in a group match.

In the pre-independence era, the tournament saw some fierce contests between British and Indian teams with Mohun Bagan famously becoming the first Indian side to win it in 1911 by beating East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final. This was more than just a Mohun Bagan victory, though, as the success seemed to unify the entire nation and is considered by many as one of the catalysts of the fight against the British Empire.

Mohun Bagan's 1911 IFA Shield winning team

Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield winning team

Post Independence, the tournament became a regular battlefield for clubs around the country but especially for arch-rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The two giants have played some memorable finals, like the one in 1969 when Mohun Bagan triumphed 3-1 at the East Bengal ground and the one six years after that when the red-and-gold brigade won 5-0 at the Mohun Bagan ground (that result is still the biggest victory in this famous old rivalry).

The IFA Shield also used to see the appearance of some quality clubs from around the world. Armenia’s FC Ararat Yerevan, Uruguay’s Penarol, Uzbekistan’s FC Pakhtakor Tashkent and Myanmar’s Finance and Revenue FC all have the distinction of being among the foreign teams to have lifted the famous old trophy.

While Mohun Bagan can boast of the 1911 triumph, East Bengal, the most successful team with 28 titles, have an impressive record against foreign clubs in the competition, with the wins over Iran’s PAS Club in 1970 and North Korea’s Pyongyang City Sports Club in 1973 being two of their most famous triumphs.

In the early and mid-noughties, the IFA did a great job of ensuring live nationwide coverage of the tournament. As a result, Indian football fans were familiar with the competition even at the start of the 21st century, with top clubs around the country also participating and taking it very seriously.

But in recent years the interest has declined, even in Kolkata. Much of it has been down to the expansion of the national domestic league (I-League) which makes it very difficult for the IFA to fit the tournament in the calendar. The tournament didn’t even take place in 2007 and 2010.

The organizers have the option of hosting the tournament in the pre-season but the monsoon in Kolkata and the staging of the Federation Cup remain major issues and hence the competition now takes place in the middle of the season during an I-League break. Which is also why we hardly see clubs from Goa taking part as they use the I-League break to have a nice breather before the business end of the I-League campaign.

Worryingly, the top clubs of the city have also been taking the tournament lightly, with East Bengal fielding a weaker team in 2011 to focus on the I-League and AFC Cup. Mohun Bagan, meanwhile, shockingly withdrew from the competition last year citing injuries as they wanted to keep their squad fresh with the I-League title still within reach.

The IFA should take most of the blame for this state of affairs, though; not only for the unprofessional manner in which they organize the event but also for the poor quality foreign teams that they invite for the competition. The standards seems to be getting worse with each passing edition.

Bayern Munich Reserves in 2005

Bayern Munich Reserves in 2005

South Africa’s Santos FC was the last foreign club to reach the final in 2008 while the Bayern Munich Reserves, who won in 2005, are the last foreign team to win the competition and also the last quality foreign side to have taken part. Nowadays, because of IFA’s inability to attract adequate sponsors, we see foreign teams coming with their youth or reserve sides while some also bring retired stars.

Matches are also not telecast by national channels anymore. This year, which is the 117th edition, the IFA even had to bear the embarrassment of last minute withdrawals of teams from not only abroad but also within the country. As a result, even on the eve of the tournament, the actual participants and fixture list weren’t known.

The only solace now for the tournament is the mouth watering semifinal between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The continued absence of this fixture for one reason or the other is another major factor behind the decline in interest.

Due to the absence of this clash in recent years, many semifinals and finals have taken place in front of near empty stands, a sight unimaginable twenty years ago. This meeting, the first in six editions, will at least attract a big crowd and the tournament will finally be making some headlines for the right reasons.

The priority for defending champions East Bengal are the I-League and AFC Cup but like any good coach Trevor Morgan wouldn’t want to get rid of the winning habit that his side are currently enjoying; the Englishman would also want to remain on course to win every domestic trophy this season.

For Mohun Bagan it’s a chance to finally win some silverware and also to make up for the embarrassment of not even taking part last year. Mohun Bagan coach Karim Bencherifa lost the final in 2009 and will be aiming to go one better this time to build some confidence ahead of his team’s relegation battle in the I-League.

First clash in the IFA Shield since 2005

First clash in the IFA Shield since 2005

The match also marks the return of evening matches at the Salt Lake Stadium (although only prematurely, as the IPL opening ceremony will take place there very soon) as the new floodlights are set to be used for the first time.

However, the ultimate winner from this marquee clash will be the tournament that started way back in 1893. The IFA Shield is finally back in the limelight.

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