India to bid for 2021 Asian Champions League

This is the first time an Indian club will be at the high table of Asian football which has expanded from 32 to 40 teams and will be held in two zones, east and west.

FC Goa players celebrate a goal against Hyderabad FC during their Indian Super League match(PTI)

FC Goa were clubbed with last year’s runners-up Persepolis and Qatar’s Al-Rayyan in the 2021 Asian Champions League, the group stage draw for which was made in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. Completing Group E will be the winners between UAE’s Al Wahda and Iraq’s Al-Zawraa.

This is the first time an Indian club will be at the high table of Asian football which has expanded from 32 to 40 teams and will be held in two zones, east and west. FC Goa, who qualified by virtue of being the league stage winners of last season’s Indian Super League (ISL), are in west zone whose group stage games will be held in a bio-secure bubble from April 14-30. Competition in the east zone will be from April 21 to May 7. The centralised venues for both zones will be chosen following a bidding process.

Asked if Goa could host it, given that the state is organising the 11-team ISL now, FC Goa team director Ravi Puskur said: “It would be a great opportunity for AIFF (All India Football Federation) and Goa and would open a brand new market for the competition. Goa has proved its hosting capability with the ISL and the under-17 World Cup. Don’t see why Goa can’t be given the opportunity.

“The bids open on Friday. We will bid,” said AIFF general secretary Kushal Das over the phone from New Delhi. Goa is a logical choice, he said.

Suspended last year due to Covid-19, all matches were played in Qatar when the Champions League resumed. Ulsan Hyundai won the title for the second time, coming from behind to beat Iran’s Persepolis 2-1 in the final. The champions, along with former winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (South Korea) and Guangzhou Evergrande (China) are in east zone.

In the draw conducted by AFC deputy general secretary Shin Man Gil, FC Goa were the last name in Group E. FC Goa were in Pot 3 along with teams from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Jordan and Iran. “It’s been almost a year-long wait but now that the draw is out, each one of us is digesting that we will be playing in the Champions League,” said Puskur in a Zoom interaction along with coach Juan Ferrando.

“The best teams of Asia are playing so it is normal to have a difficult group. This is a great opportunity to improve,” said Ferrando, adding that his immediate focus is on Friday’s ISL7 game against East Bengal. After 13 rounds, FC Goa are third in ISL7 with 20 points, 10 leaders Mumbai City FC with ATK Mohun Bagan in second place on 24 points.

“We watched the draw together and the boys cheered when we found out that we were in the same group as Persepolis,” said Puskur. Persepolis have been runners-up twice in the Champions League and have been Iran’s top league champions since 2016-17. Al Rayyan finished second in the 2019-20 Qatar Stars League. They finished on 51 points from 22 games, one less than champions Al-Duhail and six more than Al-Sadd who are coached by former Barcelona great Xavi.

With a wan smile, Ferrando said extending their stay in a bio-bubble for almost 45 days after ISL7 will be tough “but we are not so upset because we are playing the Asian Champions League.”

ATK Mohun Bagan’s draw

Defending ISL champions ATK Mohun Bagan were drawn in Group D of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier continental competition, on Wednesday. Also in the group are: Basundhara Kings (Bangladesh), Maziya S&RC (Maldives) and a qualifier. Also in AFC Cup are Bengaluru FC who will play the qualifier with the winners of Sri Lanka Police and Nepal Army Club. The qualifiers are in April with the group stage in a yet-undecided centralised venue from May 14.

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