AFC Champions League

Opinion: Is AFC Champions League too tough for Indian clubs?

Atawaris WarsiAtawaris Warsi
October 13 2023

Since getting a spot in 2019-20, no Indian club has made it past the group stage.

Indian clubs have experienced a rough patch in the AFC Champions League ever since the tournament was rechristened from the Asian Champion Club tournament to the ACL. Apart from a few standout campaigns, Indian clubs have not been able to make a significant impact in the ACL.

The AFC Champions League as we know started from the 2003-2004 season. Before that rebranding, clubs like Mysore State, West Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and East Bengal had showcased their quality at the highest level of football in the continent.

FC Goa, the first team to qualify for AFC Champions League

Since the tournament was renamed as the AFC Champions League in 2002, no Indian team had managed to qualify for the main draw of the competition until 2021. However, with the AFC granting direct group stage entry to Indian Super League (ISL) sides that won the ISL League Winners Shield, a new chapter in Indian football began in the 2019-20 season. FC Goa became the first Indian side to qualify for the AFC Champions League and played in the ACL 2021.

FC Goa drew with Al Rayyan. (Courtesy: AFC)

In a thrilling turn of events, Mumbai City FC secured the honours for the ACL 2022 and etched their name in history by becoming the first Indian team to secure a victory in the AFC Champions League. This historic achievement came in the form of a memorable group stage win over Iraq’s Air Force Club.

But, the performance of Indian clubs has not been at par as compared to other Asian teams. FC Goa in the 2021 season drew thrice and lost on the three other occasions. Meanwhile Mumbai City FC accumulated seven points in 2022, where they won two matches, lost three and drew once.

Teams far better than Indian Clubs

The AFC Champions League consists of teams from all around Asia, including the likes of Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Ulsan Hyundai, and many others. These teams have consistently featured talented players over the years.

When compared with Indian clubs, these teams are significantly superior in terms of quality, tactics, training facilities, transfers, and player development. Furthermore, they boast far better records than Indian clubs in the AFC Champions League.

Far less exposure in the AFC Champions League

Mumbai City FC defeated Air Force Club of Iraq. (Courtesy: ISL)

As mentioned earlier, Indian clubs have been participating in the AFC Champions League since 2021. This relatively short period of involvement means that these clubs haven’t had as much exposure to the competition compared to other seasoned teams. Teams like Al Hilal, Kashima Antlers, and Urawa Red Diamonds have a long history in the tournament and have gained extensive experience over the years, setting them apart from clubs like FC Goa and Mumbai City FC.

Considering these circumstances, it’s important to have realistic expectations. It’s unlikely that Indian clubs will achieve miraculous success in the AFC Champions League immediately. Patience is key, as it will take time for these Indian teams to adapt, grow, and gain the necessary experience to make significant strides in the tournament. However, with dedication, learning from each campaign, and continuous improvement, fans can hope to witness greater achievements from Indian clubs in the AFC Champions League in the future.

Less number of games played ahead of the ACL matches

As mentioned by Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham this season, following their loss against Navbahor, he emphasised that the team needs more games before heading into the AFC Champions League match. This extended playtime would allow the team to settle into the season more effectively.

Currently the Islanders are the only team playing in the ACL after grabbing the ISL Shield last term. Their losses against Nassaji and Navbahor can be attributed, in part, to this need for more games and time to adapt. It remains to be seen what lies ahead for the Islanders as they prepare to face Al Hilal further in the tournament.

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