FC Goa will become the first club in India’s history to play in the AFC Champions League group stages at the Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, Goa, later tonight.
This is the competition in which the top tier of Asain clubs play annually in a format modelled on the UEFA Champions League in Europe. Indian clubs have tried before. However, from 2021, the tournament expanded to include a club each from India, Jordan and Tajikistan in the west; Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore in the east. Previously these nations had to go through a playoff round before entering the main stage of the tournament. No Indian club made it through the playoff.
Getting India a direct spot, a sporting version of affirmative action, was the result of successful lobbying by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its president Praful Patel, at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The arguments are hard to counter. First, India’s football market has undergone a (relatively) massive capital infusion over the past half decade or more after the AIFF signed a commercial deal with the Reliance subsidiary, Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), in 2010. The latter own and operate the Indian Super League (ISL), founded in 2013, which has now been granted the status of the premier club competition in the country.
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The capital has gone towards infrastructure development, player wages have jumped as much as 10 folds in some cases, more support staff and, most of all, marketing. Laurent Blanc, who won the World Cup with France in 1998, attested the infrastructure bit, praising the Fatorda turf in his pre-match press conference.
Blanc is now coaching the Qatari side Al Rayyan, who are FC Goa’s opponents in the opening fixture. More on them later. Most pertinently, the ISL has been marketed the daylights out of. All games are broadcast on the Star Sports network and its digital platform Hotstar. Online engagement is growing on all fronts, content, esports,etc.
Despite being among the most seriously affected of nations by Covid-19, the ISL went ahead in what is being called a bio-bubble. All 11 teams were based in Goa, confined to hotels and training, and matches played behind closed doors. Live viewership numbers rivalled those of the English Premier League in the Indian market. This is, without doubt, a major factor behind Goa’s selection as one of the competition venues, hosting clubs from Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It is this ‘market’ that, no doubt, proves the most alluring argument to the commercially-minded sports administrator of today. Meanwhile, the fans will be introduced to an almost brand new competition tonight. The AFC Champions League, or most other Asian football for that matter, has been of little interest to both the average football fan in India and the press. Since games aren’t shown on TV regularly, it is difficult to follow and so the European version is generally preferred. With an Indian team in the fray, and the games being held in Goa, all that are likely to change.
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And this is what brings us to why India’s inclusion in this competition has real value. From a football perspective, it's a no-brainer. Players get to compete against the best clubs on the continent year-on-year, without necessarily being a part of the national team. This, in turn, gives planners and fans a chance to expand their horizons and get a tangible sense of what the Big Boys do differently. It allows the press and pundits to better educate themselves and it can be monetarily rewarding if a club does well in the competition.
Off the pitch, In terms of the larger idea of India’s participation as a footballing nation in Asia, it is a small step forward. When the format for the previous cricket World Cup was to be decided, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was on the side of reducing the number of participating nations because playing against the smaller cricketing nations wasn’t worth their time and effort. When it comes to football, we are on the other end of the spectrum, lobbying hard and successfully, for inclusion as opposed to exclusivity.
The Champions league will give us another avenue through which to engage with the political machinations that shape the game we watch. We will, at least in theory, better understand how the myriad strains of inequality that permeate the game, its euro-centric worldview and how that impacts poorer nations such as ours, while shaping the industry and those engaged in it. Perhaps, in time, it will inspire India to lobby for more radical, more equal and more inclusive change.
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For now, though, a memorable evening lies in store for Juan Ferrando and his FC Goa squad. Which brings us back to Al Rayyan, among the leading sides from the richest nation on the planet. Al Rayyan have not had the best of domestic season in the recently concluded Qatar Stars League, finishing third. But that is still third place in a league ranked second among Asian club competitions (India are 15th). In first place were Al Sadd, coached by Spanish great Xavi to an unbeaten season.
Ferrando had to make some hard decisions already, because Asian rules only allow a total of four foreign players per team. Now he has a bigger tactical conundrum. Goa are a side that likes to play with the ball at their feet, holding possession. Against Al Rayyan that style is difficult to go with. Ferrando urged the players to go out without fear and enjoy their “once in a lifetime opportunity” in his pre-match statements. Let’s now see what framework he provides to put some of that within the realm of possibility.
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