In many ways, the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune is a repository of nostalgia. In the many buildings that have hosted sports like boxing, badminton, kabaddi and even kho kho, hang hoardings, fresh and faded.

From the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, to the 2023 Tata Open Maharashtra tennis event, it has witnessed some important sporting moments.

On Sunday, a new set of hoardings decorated the venue, the football stadium in particular. Giant banners read out proudly the name of an elite competition that will see its group stage games be played on Indian soil for the first time in front of the home fans. The AFC Champions League – the premier men’s club football competition in Asia.

Mumbai City FC, the Indian Super League’s League Shield winners from the 2022-23 season, will represent India in the contest, with their first match taking place on September 18, when they host Iranian club Nassaji Mazandaran.

This is the third time an Indian club has made it to the group stage of the Champions League, the second season in a row for Mumbai City. FC Goa had qualified for the 2021 edition, drawing three and losing just as many in their six group games (that edition was held at the Fatorda Stadium in Goa behind closed doors).

Last year, Mumbai City finished second in their group with two wins and a draw from their six matches. Head coach Des Buckingham asserted that his team is well prepared for their first Champions League match of the season.

“We had two and a half weeks in Thailand, which was the first time since I’ve been here that we had everybody with us since the start [of the pre-season camp],” he said in an interview with Scroll.

“We have worked extremely hard and I’m happy with what we had control of, we have done as well as we could have. We’re as well positioned as we could be. It’s about making sure that we get the game plan the way that we want it and we get the players very clear on the approach to this game.”

The club plays their domestic matches at the approximately 7,500-seater Mumbai Football Arena, Andheri. But the team was forced to host their Champions League matches away from the city since, according to club CEO Kandarp Chandra, “the current infrastructure in Andheri does not allow us to host Champions League games.”

And so, Mumbai City will play all of their Group D home matches in Pune. They first host Nassaji Mazandaran, who qualified for the competition after winning the Iranian Hazfi Cup. On November 6, the Indian club will host the runners-up from last season, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, who have added a bevy of international stars led by Brazil’s Neymar. Their final group match will be at home against Uzbekistan’s Navbahor.

Importance of continuity

Buckingham is now in his third season at the club. The team finished fifth in his first season, but last year went on an 18-match unbeaten run to win the League Shield title (topping the ISL group stage).

Crucially for Mumbai City though is that they still have the crux of the team that played an entertaining brand of football – and brought in the results – last season. There is Phurba Lachenpa in goal, with Rahul Bheke, Mehtab Singh and Rostyn Griffiths martialling the defence once again.

Greg Stewart and Alberto Noguero will once again dictate proceedings from midfield while Lalengmawia Ralte will play as the bridge between defence and attack. On the wings there is the speed and pace of Vikram Pratap Singh and Bipin Singh. Lallianzuala Chhangte will once again be expected to chip in with goals, while Jorge Pereyra Diaz will spearhead the attack.

“We’ve had two years together, this is my third year with the club,” Buckingham said. “To still be here and to still be able to build on the work that we’ve done, that’s the most important thing. Players understand what we do and how we do it.”

A player who will be missing for the home team is their new signing Abdenasser El Khayati. The Dutch player of Moroccan descent, who played for Chennayin FC last season, was not granted a visa on time by the Indian government.

Nassaji Mazandaran will also be missing a crucial player – Iraq’s Alaa Abbas – due to visa trouble.

“He is our main striker,” Nassaji coach Seyed Mehdi Rahmati said in the pre-match press conference. “Not granting him a visa is a very big problem for us.”

Benefit of experience

Last year, Mumbai City finished second in their group but did not progress to the knockout since the club was not among the best three group runners-up. But that experience, Buckingham asserted, will help his team this year.

“We have experience of playing in the Champions League last year [along with] the football that we played in the league,” he said during the pre-match press conference. “If we can combine those together and if we prepare well, we’ll put ourselves in the strongest position we can. But it’s the top level of Asian club competition, so we must be on top of our game.”

On Sunday, ground staff were hard at work, mowing the lush-green pitch at the Balewadi Stadium, while another crew busied themselves in adjusting advertisement hoardings along the perimeter of the pitch.

These were careful last-minute checks, in preparation for the biggest club competition in Asia. Another deposit in the Balewadi memory bank.