It is no secret that the Durand Cup, the oldest tournament in India and third oldest in the world, has been floundering for quite some time now. Last held in 2016, what was once the most prestigious tournament in the Indian calendar struggles today for relevance and survival.
Started in 1888, the tournament was initially played only by army teams but over the years civilian teams joined in, beginning with Mohun Bagan in 1922. Following India’s independence in 1947, the tournament was hosted by the Indian Army, with the three service chiefs heading the Durand Football Tournament society. Under British rule, most Indian army men preferred hockey to football, with the exception initially being the Nepalese personnel of the Brigade of Gurkhas. This changed soon enough and during the 1950s and 1960s, quite a few teams from the regiments and the services competed in the Durand Cup with distinction. The famed Madras Regimental Centre (MRC Wellington) won two titles in the 1950s and Gorkha Brigade did the same in the 1960s.
Gorkha Brigade ensured full houses in Delhi whenever they played, with attacking intent that made them eminently watchable. Puran Bahadur and Bhupinder Singh Rawat among others were crowd favourites, but it was Shyam Thapa in the late 1960s and 1970s who was a household name across India.
He was first discovered as a 16 year old in 1964 when he scored the winner in the final of the Subroto Mukherjee Cup, the premier schools tournament in the country. He soon found his way to East Bengal but the pressure of Calcutta football proved too much for the teenager in his first stint and he joined Gorkha Brigade in 1967.
In a memorable Durand Cup final in 1969, he scored the winner against Border Security Force (BSF) in front of General Sam Manekshaw, who would later become Field Marshall. The General invited the Gorkha Brigade team to a party the next day where Thapa put in a request to leave the army so that he could play professionally.
The General agreed and his career, both at club and international level, took off. He is one of very few people to have had great playing careers at both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. He had all the tricks that kept spectators happy and was renowned for his acrobatic back volleys and overhead bicycle kicks. Fast and explosive, he had the ability to conjure up goals out of nowhere. He even scored in the famous 2-2 draw for Mohun Bagan against Pele’s New York Cosmos in 1977.
He represented India between 1970 and 1977 and retired prematurely from international duty after initially not being called up and then denied the captaincy for the 1978 Asian Games. After his playing career was over, he took up roles in grass root academies. In recent years, he has worked with the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) with a view of developing football in that country.
That 1969 Durand win was the last by an army regimental team until an Army XI won a surprise victory in 2005. There has been a decline in the standards offered by regimental sports teams in recent decades and there is some food for thought there for the Services Sports Control Board (SSCB). Shyam Thapa and others like him are a reminder of the time when these teams were feared by the best club sides in the country.