For a player used to gracing Rio de Janeiro’s world-famous Maracana Stadium or the Parc des Princes in Paris, the modest Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune might be a bit of a culture shock for Neymar, who is in line to play his first ever match on Indian soil.
The Brazil superstar and his new Al Hilal teammates were drawn in Group D of the 2023-24 Asian Champions League on Thursday, setting up trips to Iran to face Nassaji Mazandaran, Uzbekistan to take on Navbahor, and India, where they will be hosted by Mumbai City, the reigning Indian Super League champions.
Mumbai, who are part of the City Football Group, usually play their games at the Andheri Sports Complex, but that didn’t meet the AFC’s criteria, so they’ve switched to the nearby Balewadi, which holds just 11,800. The biggest star to have visited the arena previously is probably Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan, who was once involved in a consortium that bought local side FC Pune City.
That will all change, however, when Neymar and his illustrious teammates – Hilal also boast Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Malcom – come to town later this year.
Mumbai's English coach, Des Buckingham, said his side were relishing the challenge of taking on some of the biggest names in world football.
“As coaches and players, we always want to test ourselves against the best," he said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us to continue what we did last time around and to showcase what Indian football can do on that stage. We’re looking forward to giving a good account of ourselves against the likes of Al Hilal, Nassaji and Navbahor – some of the best clubs in Asia – and represent not just Mumbai but Indian football as a whole in the best way possible.”
Indeed, it’s a quirk of the Saudi football explosion that it will not only be Neymar and his colleagues exploring new frontiers, as the influx of elite talent across the league's leading clubs get to the grips with the demands of Asia’s top continental competition.
In Group E, for example, Cristiano Ronaldo and his star-studded Al Nassr side will make the trip to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to take on the 2022 Tajiki champions Istikol, who play their games at the 20,000-capacity Pamir Stadium.
Ronaldo, who counts Sadio Mane and Marcelo Brozovic among his teammates, is also set for an away day in Tehran to visit Iranian Pro League outfit Persepolis, and another in Qatar where Al Duhail are waiting for them.
Meanwhile, in Group C, current Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema is slated for a potential trip to Baghdad to face Air Force Club – although like all these group stage games, exact dates and venues are still to be confirmed.
Also in Group C are Isfahan-based Iranian side Sepahan, who regularly attract huge crowds to the Naghsh-e-Jahan Stadium. The section is completed by AGMK of Uzbekistan, who are based in the heavily-industrialised Olmaliq district of capital Tashkent.
While precise venues and the fixture calendar are still being formulated, there's no doubt that the 2023-24 ACL group stage is sure to throw up some extraordinary trips for the Saudi Pro League’s star players and exciting opportunities for football fans across Asia to see them play.
The group stage will run from September 18 to December 13, with the knockout stage to kick off on February 12. The full draw can be seen below:
Group A: Pakhtakor (UZB), Al-Fayha FC (KSA), Ahal FC (TKM), Al-Ain FC (UAE)
Group B: Al Sadd SC (QAT), FC Nasaf (UZB), Al-Faisaly (JOR), Sharjah FC (UAE)
Group C: Al-Ittihad (KSA), Sepahan SC (IRN), Air Force Club (IRQ), AGMK FC (UZB)
Group D: Al-Hilal SFC (KSA), Nassaji Mazandaran FC (IRN), Mumbai City FC (IND), Navbahor (UZB)
Group E: Persepolis FC (IRN), Al-Duhail SC (QAT), FC Istiklol (TJK), Al Nassr (KSA)
Group F: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC (KOR), Bangkok United (THA), Lion City Sailors (SGP), Kitchee SC (HKG)
Group G: Yokohama F. Marinos (JPN), Shandong Taishan FC (CHN), Kaya FC-Iloilo (PHI), Incheon United FC (KOR)
Group H: Buriram United (THA), Ventforet Kofu (JPN), Melbourne City FC (AUS), Zhejiang FC (CHN)
Group I: Ulsan Hyundai FC (KOR), Kawasaki Frontale (JPN), Johor Darul Ta'zim (MAS), BG Pathum United (THA)
Group J: Wuhan Three Towns FC (CHN), Pohang Steelers (KOR),Hanoi FC (VIE), Urawa Red Diamonds (JPN)