AFC - Mumbai City FC
Mumbai City FC captain, Senegalese Mourtada Fall (left) during a training session under the watchful eyes of head coach Des Buckingham during their acclimatisation camp at the Al Forsan in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied photo

Kolkata: Mumbai City FC, Indian Super League (ISL) champions of 2021 who will be representing the country in AFC Champions League next month, struck an upbeat note about their campaign as they are about to wrap up their two-week preparation camp in Abu Dhabi.

A part of the City Football Group, the Mumbai-based team qualified for their first appearance in the continental tournament after becoming champions in the 2020-21 season. They also lifted the League Winners’ Shield by topping the league table, thus becoming only the second Indian club (after FC Goa) to secure a ticket in Asia’s biggest club competition.

Drawn in Group B in the West Region of the 2022 AFC Champions League, Mumbai are clubbed with Al Jazira (UAE), Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia) and Air Force Club (Iraq) for the league matches which get underway on April 8.

Giving a peek into their preparations, their British head coach Des Buckingham said: ‘‘The players had regrouped in Abu Dhabi after a small break after being in the bubble for six months for the recent ISL. They made good use of the conditions in the UAE and are as prepared as we can be.’’

AFC - Buckingham
The team being a part if the City Group, according to Des Buckingham (centre), entitles them to adopt some of the best practices in professional football. Image Credit: Supplied photo

Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive zoom chat, Buckingham revealed that he and two members of his support staff had gone over to watch a Al Jazira game in the UAE Pro League to make some mental notes. ‘‘See, the three other teams are champions of their respective countries and hence the competition will be at a different level. However, we want to be the first Indian club to win a match at the AFC Champions League,’’ said the 37-year-old, who became one of the youngest coaches in the world when he started off in A-League.

Mourtada Fall, their Senegalese captain and central defender who was also the topscorer among the defenders in 2020-21 ISL when they won the title, echoed similar sentiments. ‘‘You can’t say in football. If we do our best, anything may happen,’’ he said.

An interesting aspect of the Mumbai team, which failed to make the play-offs in the just-concluded season (which saw Hyderabad FC emerge as the new champions) and eventually finished in fifth spot, is that the core of the side revolves round Indian footballers with six overseas recruits in all. Buckingham, who took charge at the start of the new season some six months back, said: ‘‘In what I have seen in the past few months, we have some really capable players among them. If we can keep the environment positive and develop the right playing structure with them, then we can progress in the tournament. I also want to also test myself at this level.’’

Fall, a great admirer of his much decorated compatriot Sadio Mane, observed that finishing fifth after being the champions the previous season is actually a testimony about the improved standards of competition in ISL. ‘‘We had a new-look team this season and the competition is getting tougher, Once you drop behind, it becomes difficult to play catch-up - though we eventually did well to finish fifth among 12 teams,’’ Fall said.

Finally, what qualitative difference can it make for a club from India, ranked below 100 in Fifa rankings, to be a part of the City Football Group since 2019? ‘‘I am with the club because of that arrangement. I was a part of group in Melbourne and I must say that it allows us to do things in a certain way with our network - we can recruit players and support staff globally and it gives us a chance to keep up with the best practices in the sport,’’ Buckingham added.

A dream come true: Fall

Senegal’s first-ever triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations in February this year, according to Mourtada Fall, has been like a dream-come-true for the people of the country. They held their nerves to prevail over Mohammed Salah’s Egypt in a shootout (4-2) in the final after a goalless draw in regulation time.

‘‘It was the dream of the Senegalese people. However, it’s a culmination of lot of hard work from players of earlier generation and we need to carry on the legacy,’’ the Mumbai City FC captain recalled. He is also aware of French coach Bruno Metsu, under whom the African nation had their best-ever showing in a Fifa World Cup when they reach quarter finals in 2002. Metsu later acquired a cult status in the UAE when he guided Al Ain to AFC Champions League in 2003 and also served as the UAE coach.

Fall is also respectful about the leadership qualities of Sadio Mane, who spearheaded the team’s campaign in Nations Cup. ‘‘He has been a leader of the current team in a true sense of the term,’’ he added.