Even without Neymar, Mumbai City’s Al Hilal tie is ‘one of the biggest in Indian history'

Indian club's manager, Des Buckingham, talks to The National ahead of the Asian Champions League match

Mumbai City players train for their Asian Champions League match against Al Hilal. Photo: Mumbai City FC
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When Mumbai City were drawn in the same group as Al Hilal ahead of the new Asian Champions League season, their players responded with such joy it went viral in cyberspace.

Neymar was on his way to the Riyadh side, as well as a host of other big-name stars, as Saudi football was in the process of shaking up the sport's established order.

The challenge for the Mumbai side of toppling a giant was going to be laced with even more stardust.

Now the plum fixture in Group D is upon them, with the sides set to meet at King Fahd International Stadium on Monday night, but the Indian champions will be deprived of the chance to pit themselves against Hilal’s headline act.

Neymar is set to be sidelined for months having ruptured his cruciate ligament while on international duty for Brazil last week.

And yet the game is still a mouthwatering one, according to Des Buckingham, the Mumbai City coach.

“To pull out Al Hilal, the most successful side in this competition, is a real challenge,” Buckingham said.

“As a player and coach, you want to challenge yourself against the best. This certainly is the biggest game of football in our club’s history. I would argue that it could be one of the biggest games at club level in India’s history.”

Neymar might have been the most eye-catching signing, but Hilal’s summer spending also landed them the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Ruben Neves.

“Look at the disparity between the two clubs,” Buckingham said. “For example, the goalkeeper, Yassine Bono, is valued at twice as much as our actual squad.

“Our players have grown up watching many of these players, both from Saudi but certainly some of the foreign players who have recently come in. They have grown up watching them through the last 10 or 15 years.

“There was excitement drawing out Al Hilal because of the history they have in this competition. It is almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these players to take to the field with Asia’s best, and some of the world’s best players, and pitch themselves against them.”

Buckingham himself is giving away much in the way of experience to his own opposite number.

In the Hilal dugout is Jorge Jesus, the 69-year-old Portuguese coach who includes the likes of Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Flamengo among his former clubs.

At 38, Buckingham is five days younger than Cristiano Ronaldo, that other star import to Saudi football, yet he has been coaching for 22 years.

This certainly is the biggest game of football in our club’s history. I would argue that it could be one of the biggest games at club level in India’s history
Des Buckingham, Mumbai City manager

India is the fourth country in which the Englishman has plied his trade, having previously coached in England, New Zealand and Australia.

Although Mumbai City do not attract quite the numbers that are likely to be there in Riyadh on Monday, he says his players are used to playing in fervent atmospheres.

“Across India, football is a huge sport and really well supported,” Buckingham said.

“We see the support Al Hilal gets. We might be facing 50-60,000 in the stadium. There are some grounds we go to in India where the attendance figures aren’t too different to that.

“We faced that last year in some of the away games we played. The desire and fanfare in India is huge, and in Mumbai it has certainly grown.”

While the Cricket World Cup may be dominating the sporting landscape in Mumbai at present, Buckingham is certain football is progressing rapidly – and he says his side are doing their bit in spreading the word.

“You see many young fans walking around with football shirts on as well as cricket,” he said.

“It is certainly progressing. Yes, cricket is without doubt the No 1 sport, just as when I was in New Zealand rugby was, but football is very quickly closing in.

“It is about trying to do as well as you can in the job you are in. If you can do that, you will be successful.

“Success can mean many things. From our side, to go and do what we did last year in terms of winning the [Indian Super League] in the manner we did – amassing more points and scoring more goals than has been done before – we know full well that brought more fans to the stadium.

“It also got more eyes on the TV watching our games. You can talk about the sport, but you have to have the success.”

Updated: October 23, 2023, 4:23 AM