Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham insisted Indian Super League (ISL) clubs continue showcasing top-level football at the Asian level, as a proof of the long strides that Indian football is taking at the present moment.

Despite a historic 2022 AFC Champions League campaign, which saw the Islanders claim two victories, the side failed to qualify for the knock-out stages. They eventually finished at the second spot in Group B, with seven points from six matches.

It was a huge achievement considering it was only the second time an Indian club featured in the elite competition. Aligning with the popular conception, Buckingham advocated the idea of intense participation in Asian level competitions, along with keeping up with the level of football.

“There was FC Goa who came in before us and picked up three draws, we came in and picked up two wins and a draw to give us seven points. I think it’s important whoever comes in next year continues to show the progress of the league because I don’t think there were many groups across East (Zone) and West (Zone) where one team got heavily beaten consistently,” said Des Buckigham, in a podcast with Spotify.

“For us, we have not only shown that we can compete but also beat them at this level. The more opportunities we get, whether it’s Indian football or Mumbai City FC, I’d like to think that we can continue to show that we can.”

India has taken aggressive measures to devise development plans at the grassroots level, with several academies in operation. ISL does provide a launchpad for the new crop, yet, players can only depend on AFC competitions for exposure required to match upto international standards. Buckingham, already in the scheme of things, is well aware of the fact.

“I think it’s huge (to participate in AFC competitions), as a player and as a coach you want to compete against the best, and at the club level, it’s the AFC Champions League (ACL). We have the I-League back in India, now we have the Indian Super League (ISL), which provides the opportunity for development of professional players, which will be in its eighth season,” explained Buckingham.

“To say how the AFC Champions League is an extra development layer on top, it will only further expose our players to that league, to compete against, what is Asia’s best players, staff, team. The more opportunities they get, the more experience they’ll get, which will further enhance their development.”

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Couple of wins over Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya was far more than anybody would have bet prior to the start of the event. To end at the second spot, was beyond imagination. A disappointing Hero ISL 2021-22 campaign just ahead of the ACL hardly helped the cause.

What fuelled the Islanders’ ambition was a two-week camp in Abu Dhabi, sandwiched between the two assignments, which included a friendly match against continental heavyweights Al-Ain, whom they defeated.

“We were missing our leading goalscorer Igor Angulo (in the ACL), so we had to adapt and change the setup. What I was really grateful for was that the club supported us to get across to Abu Dhabi two weeks before the ACL. And that two-week camp which we had in Abu Dhabi, we played friendly matches and picked up (positive) results against them prior to the ACL,” recalled Buckingham. 

“It gave us two weeks to prepare and plan, and do something different, which maybe we did not do in the ISL. Because I thought that would be important going against the powerhouses in Asia. Those two weeks and those two friendlies we had over there really prepared us for what we were going into (ACL).”

Bio-bubble life is hard, however accepting the situation has been the norm. Buckingham, who was also a victim of the restrictions, is hoping for brighter days to come next season.

“I’ve seen India in the last six months pretty much from a car window, because we were not allowed to go outside the bubble and experience India, which I know can be a wonderful country and beautiful people,” stated the coach.

“That’s what I am looking forward to next year: to go back to Mumbai, have home and away leg matches and to experience not only Mumbai, but all the other places we go, with the fans back as well.”