The last three years have represented a great time in the evolution of the Indian Super League and its clubs. In 2020, FC Goa became the first ever Indian club to compete in the AFC Champions League. Their league title in 2019/20 marked the beginning of a journey that would see them compete against one of the continent’s biggest clubs, Iran’s FC Persepolis.
Their ACL campaign was a cause for immense pride among ISL enthusiasts. As India’s inaugural representative in this prestigious competition, FC Goa not only marked a historic milestone but also demonstrated remarkable determination and mental fortitude. Securing Indian football’s first point in the ACL, scoring its first goal and maintaining its first clean sheet in the ACL may have appeared as modest achievements on the global stage, given the fierce competition, but they symbolized a massive leap forward for Indian club football.
Crucially, FC Goa’s efforts in the ACL set a higher standard and served as an inspiration for other Indian clubs, notably Mumbai City, who would later embark on their own continental journey. These accomplishments were a testament to the potential of Indian football on the Asian stage and instilled hope for even greater success in the future.
Since this journey, however, the AFC is undertaking a major revision of its club competitions. AFC has 76 participating clubs qualifying across two tiers of club competitions – the ACL and the AFC Cup. Under the new format, the clubs will be divided into three tiers with the top tier comprised of 24 clubs which would then be subdivided into 12-team Western and Eastern leagues.
These changes present an overhaul in the way that Asian clubs will compete in continental football and for Indian Super League clubs, it could spell the end of their opportunity to test themselves among Asia’s elite clubs.
Mumbai City’s Monumental Rise
Subsequent to FC Goa’s historic ACL campaign, ISL clubs dared to dream for the first time. This wave of aspiration was ready to ride for any club willing to embrace it. This challenge saw the rise of Mumbai City. Managed by English coach, Des Buckingham, The Islanders went above and beyond the boundaries set by FC Goa the previous year, securing seven points and recording one of Indian football’s greatest moments by defeating Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya with their winning goal coming from Mumbai-born, Rahul Bheke.
In the 2022/23 ISL campaign, Mumbai City FC was successful in lifting the league shield, performing simply unstoppably as they waltzed their way to the League Winners’ Shield, shattering multiple records along the way. Buckingham’s side lifted the shield after going unbeaten for 18 games, which was an unprecedented feat, and finished top of the standings after just facing two defeats all season – another record for the division. Unfortunately, they couldn’t replicate this success in the league playoffs as they were defeated in the semi-finals by Bengaluru in a nail-biting penalty shootout.
Despite the knock-back that losing in the play-offs presented, Mumbai City are far from regressing. This summer, they secured promising 21-year-old left back, Akash Mishra from Hyderabad and seasoned number ten, Nasser El Khayati. El Khayati joins the club on the back of a remarkable individual campaign from him at Chennayin where he tallied nine goals and five assists in just twelve games.
In addition to this, Des Buckingham has been quoted recently lauding the strides that all ISL clubs have made – not just Mumbai City. And when asked which club would be the biggest challenger to The Islanders next season, he simply said “All of them.”
Is the ACL Reform a Cautionary Sign for Indian Clubs?
Mumbai City drawing Saudi behemoth club, Al Hilal, in the 2023/24 ACL echoed across the globe. Alongside Neymar – the club’s marquee signing of the summer – some of the leading names in football like Kalidou Koulibaly, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ruben Neves are among others also represent the four-time ACL winners in the competition.
This represents a potentially historic opportunity for an Indian club in the ACL, with the prospect of such an occurrence extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future. To secure a coveted ACL spot, the Indian Super League (ISL) must attain a 12th-place ranking in the coefficient standings.
The accumulation of coefficient points for the ISL hinges significantly on the performance of Indian clubs in AFC competitions, making every point earned a critical factor. Consequently, Mumbai City FC’s campaign in the ACL and Odisha and Mohun Bagan’s AFC Cup journeys (soon to be renamed ACL2) carry immense significance.
However, given Mumbai City FC’s participation in the ACL, their campaign takes on even greater importance. In pursuit of advancing the ISL and enhancing the stature of Indian football on the global stage, Mumbai City’s ACL campaign is undeniably huge for the nation’s football.
It is extremely unfortunate that the reformation plans to the ACL could spell the end of Indian club participation at the highest end of Asian club football. But the problem affects far further than Indian football. With the number of sides competing in the ACL dwindling and exhibiting a finer concentration of power and wealth among its potential clubs, the idea of seeing any club from any country among Asia’s less established footballing nations entering the competition, causing upsets and going deep into the tournament appear increasingly remote.
By: Louis Young / @FrontPostPod
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / MCFC Media