Brazilian superstar Neymar could play his first match on Indian soil after his club Al Hilal was drawn in the same group as top Indian side Mumbai City in the Asian Champions League on Thursday.
The superstar footballer, who secured a multi-million dollar deal with the Saudi club, will play at the modest Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, which will be Mumbai City’s ‘home’ for the Asian Champions League after the Andheri Sports Complex – their actual home – did not meet the tournament’s requirements.
The group stage of the Asian Champions League begins on September 18. However, it isn’t yet known when Al Hilal will play in India since the final match schedule is awaited.
Apart from Al Hilal, which is the most successful club in the history of the AFC Champions League with four titles, other teams in Group D with Mumbai City are Iran’s FC Nassaji Mazandaran and Uzbekistan’s Navbahor.
Neymar completed his transfer to Al Hilal last week for a reported sum of $97.8 million, joining an array of superstars who have flocked to Saudi this year. Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves and Malcom are some of the other big names on the roster of Al Hilal, which is coached by Portugal’s Jorge Jesus. Whether Neymar is included in Jesus’ squad for the trip to India remains to be seen. For those who are curious about Ronaldo, the rule stipulates that two clubs from the same country can’t be in one group, and hence he won’t be in India for this tournament.
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Before the draw, Mumbai City’s coach Des Buckingham said his players were excited to face ‘the best in the world’. However, it won’t be an easy task.
Owned by the Abu Dhabi-based City Football Group – which also owns Manchester City – Mumbai City produced the best performance by an Indian club in the Asian Champions League last season.
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They finished second in Group B after beating Iraq’s Air Force club twice and drew once against UAE’s Al Jazira to pocket seven points from their six group games. However, it wasn’t enough to progress into the knockout rounds as only the three best second-placed teams from the five West Zone groups could qualify further.
It isn’t the first time that a star footballer will play in India. Back in September 1977, Pele mesmerised thousands in Kolkata when he came with the New York Cosmos team to play against Mohun Bagan. Decades later, in 2011, Lionel Messi too stepped on the hallowed turf of the Salt Lake Stadium when Argentina faced Venezuela and the likes of Oliver Kahn and Alessandro del Piero have also played in the country.
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But this tops them all for the simple reason that each of those instances – except Del Piero, who played in one season of the Indian Super League – was in a friendly match. The Asian Champions League, on the other hand, is a high-stakes, competitive encounter where clubs seldom hold back.
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