Mumbai, India – Decorated in shades of blue with fan jerseys, posters and banners, the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai hosted the biggest football match on Indian soil as Mumbai City hosted Asia’s most successful club Al Hilal in the AFC Champions League.

In front of a raucous crowd of around 30,000, Mumbai City put in a solid defensive performance in the first half on Monday, but goals from Al Hilal’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Michael in the second half meant the Indian Super League (ISL) team had to call it a night on a losing note.

The turnout for the game was impressive but not surprising as it had been generating excitement for more than a month after Mumbai City were drawn in Group D against Al Hilal, who won the AFC Champions League as a record four team.

The prospect of seeing top-class players like Neymar, Mitrovic, Ruben Neves and Kalidou Koulibaly on home soil excited fans in India, with thousands signing up to buy tickets for the game.

Mumbai City had initially planned to host the match at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune, but due to high fan interest and security concerns, it moved it to the DY Patil Stadium, which has a capacity of around 42,000 spectators.

“It has always been a dream for me to watch a team from Mumbai play in the AFC Champions League. Now I could see it myself in Mumbai, which made it even more special,” Mumbai City fan Tushar Sinha told Al Jazeera.

“Al Hilal is the biggest club in Asia right now, so playing against them is one of the biggest games Mumbai City has ever had. Seeing my club play at home in front of so many people was just crazy.”

While fans in Navi Mumbai watched and cheered for Mitrovic, Neves and Koulibaly, they were unable to catch a glimpse of Neymar as the Brazilian did not travel to India last week as he underwent cruciate ligament and meniscus surgery.

The news of Neymar’s injury, which broke in mid-October, discouraged several neutral fans as many of them tried to resell their match tickets, some even at a discounted price.

Mumbai City players were also upset that they missed the chance to play against Neymar, who won the UEFA Champions League with La Liga side Barcelona in 2014-2015.

“We were all 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 had scored four or five goals against us, we would at least be happy about the chance to be on the pitch with him,” said the youngster with a smile.

Even though Neymar didn’t feature in the match, that didn’t stop Indian fans from showing their support for him as hundreds wore the Al Hilal jersey with his name on the back.

Fans from Kerala in southern India traveled to Mumbai for the game carrying a banner with well wishes for Neymar [Manasi Pathak/Al Jazeera]

No Neymar, no problem for Al Hilal

Even without the lucky charm Neymar, Al Hilal looked dangerous going forward thanks to the attacking strength of midfielder Neves and striker Mitrovic.

The Riyadh-based team came close a few times in the first half before finally breaking the stalemate in the 62nd minute when midfielder Michael scored a header after an assist from Mohammed Alburayk.

Michael beat Mumbai City defender Akash Mishra at the far post and comfortably headed the ball into the net before triggering Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademark ‘Siu’ cheer, which was also joined by the crowd.

Mitrovic, who scored a hat-trick in Al Hilal’s 6-0 first-leg win, scored the second goal in the 85th minute when the former Fulham striker headed in at the far post after a dink from Malcom.

The goal was a relief for the Serbia international, who missed several chances before finding the net, and the crowd were also delighted with the goal as they erupted in cheers during his celebration.

Mumbai City’s first-half performance was commendable but the team buckled under the pressure as they were reduced to ten players at the start of the second half and Mehtab Singh received a second yellow card for a tackle on Neves.

“We did a great job controlling the game in the first half and then Mumbai got tired. We were able to achieve our goals in the second half,” Al Hilal’s Neves said in a post-match interview.

“We knew the game would be different to Saudi Arabia. They are a very organized team and it is never easy to play against compact teams. Today we played against a team that defended very well, but we were patient and did a really good job.”

With the win, Al Hilal remained top of the group with nine points from four games and continued their unbeaten record this season. They are close to qualifying for the knockout rounds.

Mumbai City, on the other hand, looks set to be eliminated from the group stage for the second time in a row as they are yet to pick up a point from four games.

Despite the defeat, Mumbai City coach Des Buckingham was in high spirits after the game.

“I’m extremely pleased with what I saw,” Buckingham said in the post-match press conference. “Before we were sent off, I thought we had given a very good demonstration of what Indian football can achieve on this stage against the best team in the competition.”

Al-Hilal SFC players celebrate after playing during the AFC Champions League 2023/24 Group D football match between India’s Mumbai City FC and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal SFC at DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on November 6, 2023 scored a goal [AFP]

“Asia’s most important competition”

The sight of hundreds of Al Hilal jerseys among fans was a sign of how popular the Saudi Pro League has become even in the cricket-mad land of India.

After spending nearly half a billion dollars to attract top players and coaches from traditionally top European clubs, the Saudi Pro League has captured the attention of world football like never before.

It all started when Cristiano Ronaldo, five-time Ballon d’Or winner, moved to Riyadh’s Al Nassr in January after leaving Manchester United.

The Portuguese superstar’s transfer, reportedly worth more than $200 million a year, sparked a trend as many high-profile players such as Neymar, Neves, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Sadio Mane left Europe’s top leagues left and moved to 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. Critics described it as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to divert focus from criticism of its human rights record, an accusation that Saudi Arabian football has rejected.

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.

Al-Hilal SFC’s striker Aleksandar Mitrovic (C) and Mumbai City FC’s goalkeeper Phurba Tempa Lachenpa (L) fight during the AFC Champions League 2023/24 Group D football match between India’s Mumbai City FC and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal SFC at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on November 6, 2023 [AFP]

Sinha, a Mumbai City fan, said the Saudi Pro League, which consists of 18 teams, has stood out for its global popularity.

“Saudi Pro League has always been a high-investment league, but since Ronaldo joined, so much has been known 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 Saudi Pro League’s competitiveness has “exploded” with the influx of high-quality players and the league aims to be the best in Asia.

“In the last two years, there has been a big shift towards changing the league from a purely Saudi league to the premier competition in Asia,” Pathania said. “It’s not just a league full of stars, it’s a league full of stars with great recruiting.

“The best thing about the Saudi Pro League is that it has always had the resources. What they did right was that they brought their local players to a certain minimum quality level after years of training before spending the money on foreign players. This is the opposite of what the Indian Super League did.”

A few seasons ago, popular foreign players such as former Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov, former Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, former Ireland captain Robbie Keane and others joined the ISL as new signings as the league sought to expand its To increase popularity in India.

But these star players joined the Indian league when the domestic Indian players were still developing and hence could not compete with them.

“The ISL brought in the big foreign players first when the Indian players weren’t up to par… It’s fine to use big names to increase popularity, but it’s important to train your own players to a certain level before signing foreign star players,” explained Pathania.

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