Mumbai, India – Decked in shades of blue with fan jerseys, hoardings and banners, the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai hosted the biggest football match on Indian soil as Mumbai City welcomed Asia’s most successful club Al Hilal in the AFC Champions League.
In front of a noisy audience of about 30,000 on Monday, Mumbai City put on a solid defensive performance in the first half but second-half goals by Al Hilal’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Michael meant the Indian Super League (ISL) team had to end their night on a losing note.
The turnout for the game was impressive but not surprising as there had been a buzz around it for more than a month after Mumbai City were drawn in Group D with Al Hilal, who have won the AFC Champions League a record four times.
The prospect of watching high-profile players such as Neymar, Mitrovic, Ruben Neves and Kalidou Koulibaly on home soil excited fans in India with thousands signing up to buy tickets for the match.
Mumbai City initially planned to host the match at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune but owing to the huge fan interest and security reasons, they moved it to the DY Patil Stadium, which has a capacity of about 42,000.
“For me, it has always been a dream to watch a team from Mumbai play in the AFC Champions League. Now I got to see it in Mumbai itself, which made it even more special,” Mumbai City fan Tushar Sinha told Al Jazeera.
“Al Hilal are the biggest club in Asia right now, so to play against them, is one of the biggest games Mumbai City have had. To see my club play at home in front of so many people was nothing short of madness.”
While fans in Navi Mumbai watched and cheered for Mitrovic, Neves and Koulibaly, they could not get a glimpse of Neymar after the Brazilian did not travel to India, having undergone ACL and meniscus surgery last week.
The news of Neymar’s injury, which emerged in mid-October, disheartened several neutral fans as many of them tried re-selling their match tickets, some even at a discounted rate.
Mumbai City’s players, too, were upset over missing the chance to play against Neymar, who won the UEFA Champions League with La Liga club Barcelona in 2014-2015.
“All of us were upset because everyone wants to play against the best player in the world and Neymar is one of them,” Mumbai City midfielder Lalengmawia Ralte told reporters in the pre-match press conference.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if he scored four or five goals against us, at least we would been happy to have the chance to share the pitch with him,” the youngster said with a smile.
Even though Neymar did not play in the match, that did not stop Indian fans from showing their support for him as hundreds wore the Al Hilal jersey with his name on the back.
No Neymar, no problem for Al Hilal
Even without the talismanic Neymar, Al Hilal looked dangerous going forward, thanks to the attacking prowess of midfielder Neves and striker Mitrovic.
The Riyadh-based team came close on a few occasions in the first half before they finally broke the deadlock in the 62nd minute as midfielder Michael scored a header following an assist from Mohammed Alburayk.
Michael got the better of Mumbai City defender Akash Mishra at the far post and comfortably headed the ball into the net before pulling off Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademark “Siu” celebration, which the crowd joined in on.
Mitrovic, who scored a hat-trick in Al Hilal’s first leg 6-0 win, added the second goal in the 85th minute as the ex-Fulham striker rose highest to score a header at the far post following a dink from Malcom.
The goal came as a relief for the Serbian international, who missed several chances before finding the net and the crowd also enjoyed the goal as they burst into a frenzy during his celebration.
Mumbai City’s performance in the first half was commendable but the team crumbled under pressure once they were reduced to 10 players early in the second half, when Mehtab Singh was shown a second yellow card for a tackle on Neves.
“We did a great job to control the game in the first half and then Mumbai got tired. In the second half, we were able to achieve our goals,” Al Hilal’s Neves said in a post-match interview.
“We knew the game was going to be different than it was in Saudi Arabia. They are a very organised team and it’s never easy to play against teams that are compact. Today, we played against a team that defended very well but we were patient and did a really good job.”
With the victory, Al Hilal retained the top spot in the group with nine points from four games and continued their unbeaten record this season. They are on the verge of qualifying for the knockout round.
Mumbai City, on the other hand, look set to be eliminated in the group stage for the second straight season as they have yet to take a point from four matches.
Despite the defeat, Mumbai City coach Des Buckingham was in high spirits after the game.
“I am extremely happy with what I saw,” Buckingham said in the post-match press conference. “Before the sending-off, I thought we put on a very good show of what Indian football can do on this stage against the best team in this competition.”
‘Asia’s premier competition’
The sight of hundreds of Al Hilal jerseys among the fans was a sign of how popular the Saudi Pro League has become, even in the cricket-mad country of India.
After spending nearly half a billion dollars luring top players and coaches from traditional European powerhouses, the Saudi Pro League has grabbed the attention of world football like never before.
It all started when Cristiano Ronaldo, a five-time Ballon d’Or award winner, joined Riyadh-based Al Nassr in January after leaving Manchester United.
The Portuguese superstar’s transfer, reportedly worth more than $200m a year, set off a trend as many decorated players such as Neymar, Neves, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Sadio Mane ditched top European leagues for the lucrative Saudi Pro League.
While the Saudi Pro League’s lavish spending has changed the nature of the transfer market, it has also attracted criticism, with critics labelling it as Saudi Arabia’s attempt to shift the focus from criticism of its human rights record, a charge Saudi football has denied.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – Public Investment Fund (PIF) – owns 75 percent of Saudi Professional League clubs Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, Al Hilal and Al Ahli.
Mumbai City fan Sinha said the Saudi Pro League, which has 18 teams, has excelled in spreading its popularity worldwide.
“Saudi Pro League has always been a league with heavy investment but after Ronaldo joined people know so much about it,” Sinha said. “I see kids in India wearing Al Nassr jerseys with Ronaldo’s name on the back… it’s crazy!”
Another Mumbai City fan, Samar Pathania, said the competitiveness of the Saudi Pro League has “skyrocketed” following the influx of high-profile players and the league is striving to be the best in Asia.
“Over the last two years, there has been a huge shift towards changing the league from just being the Saudi league to the premier competition in Asia,” Pathania said. “It’s not just a star-studded league, it’s a star-studded league with great recruitment.
“The best thing about the Saudi Pro League is that they always had the funding. What they did right was they developed their domestic players to a certain minimum level of quality after years and years of training before spending the cash on foreign players. That’s the opposite of what the Indian Super League did.”
Several seasons ago, popular foreign players such as ex-Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov, former Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, ex-Ireland captain Robbie Keane and others joined the ISL as marquee signings as the league tried to boost its popularity in India.
But those star players joined the Indian league when India’s domestic players were still developing and thus could not keep up with them.
“The ISL got the big foreign players first when Indian players were not up to the mark… it’s OK to use big names to boost your popularity but it’s important to develop your own players to a certain level before you sign star foreigners,” Pathania explained.