For Indian football clubs over the years, qualifying for the AFC Champions League had always proved to be an insurmountable challenge. In 12 attempts no Indian club had managed to clear the qualifying rounds to enter the group stage.

The level of the competition was too high for Indian clubs who found it hard to be competitive even in the AFC Cup, the second-tier club competition in Asia.

But thanks to AFC expanding the Champions League to 24 teams from 16, India were awarded a direct group stage berth. FC Goa won the right to be the first Indian club to play in the Champions League and there couldn’t have been a more deserving candidate once the Indian Super League was awarded the AFC Champions League slot.

FC Goa – From franchise to football club

FC Goa may not have won the ISL yet but they have been the most consistent team in the competition qualifying for the playoffs in six out of the seven editions. They have the most wins in the ISL and have also scored the most number of goals.

In the last four seasons, the club has had a clear identity on and off the pitch. The team has been committed to a possession-based style of play that has been retained even after the departure of Sergio Lobera, who built the side that managed to qualify for the Champions League.

Under Derrick Pereira, their youth setup is also taking shape as the team has been able to give chances to quite a few local faces. There were 12 Goan players in their ISL squad this season.

Having slowly built their way up over the last few years, FC Goa are slowly transforming into a proper football club from being just a franchise in the ISL, like what most of their counterparts are.

Tough challenge

The challenge, obviously, will be daunting but coach Juan Ferrando is keen for his players to enjoy the historic moment.

“(We are) very excited. This is one of the biggest competitions in the world alongside the likes of the Uefa Champions League and Copa Libertadores,” FC Goa coach Juan Ferrando said.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. These are the kind of things you start playing football for. We are all very enthusiastic about it and hope to make the country proud. It’s a huge one. Not only for FC Goa but also for the entire nation. This is an opportunity for our players to play against some of the biggest names in Asia.”

“Our goals are still far. My mindset is not to think about what we have done so far but always to think of what is left to do to get closer to our goals,” Ferrando said.

The Gaurs will take the field against Qatar’s Al-Rayyan SC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in the opener on Wednesday.

The ISL 2019-’20 League winners will compete alongside Persepolis, Al-Rayyan and Al-Wahda in Group E in the most prestigious club competition in the continent.

The Indian club is first up against a side coached by former Paris Saint-Germain manager Laurent Blanc. The home team will also have to contend with the likes of former FC Porto star Yacine Brahimi and prolific Ivorian striker Yohan Boli.

Acid test for ISL, Indian football

FC Goa will certainly be underdogs in the AFC Champions League but these group stage games will prove to be an acid test for ISL and Indian football.

The national team was found wanting against superior opponents UAE in a friendly game that they lost 6-0. Coach Igor Stimac had warned the players before that game that they needed to step up from the level at which they operate in the ISL. The failure to do so and the gulf in class between India and UAE was alarming.

With the ISL not proving to be ideal preparation for the upcoming international games that the Indian football team faces, the Champions League games will test the participating national team players in the same way.

There has been a lot of talk about India needing to play friendlies against tougher opponents to improve, but these continental club championships are equally important.

FC Goa’s entry into the AFC Champions League was celebrated as a success of Indian football and the ISL, but the team’s performances and results in the competition will determine whether India has made any progress or has simply got lucky due to the tournament’s expansion.

The significance of the AFC Champions League for Indian football is huge but only if the results and performances are analysed keeping the usual hyperbole away. It’s an exciting time in Indian football, but also very crucial.