Mumbai City FC Boss Des Buckingham Opens Up Ahead of AFC Champions League Campaign | EXCLUSIVE

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Mumbai City FC made history for Indian Football last season when they became the first Indian club to win a match in the AFC Champions League and this time around will look to do better with the home and away format returning.

Mumbai City FC secured their second appearance in Asia’s biggest club football competition after lifting the 2022-23 Indian Super League Winners’ Shield and then beating 2021-22 ISL Shield Winners Jamshedpur FC 3-1 in a single-leg playoff back in April 2023.

The AFC Champions League will be coming to India for the first time with previous editions being played in centralised venues owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Another first would be the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system being implemented from the group stage.

The action kicks off for Asia in Pune with Mumbai City FC hosting Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran, with Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan’s Navbahor being the other two clubs in Group D.

In an exclusive interaction with, Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham opened up on shouldering the hopes of a billion, treating every game the same, dealing with injuries and his players juggling so many matches.

Mumbai City’s Matches in the AFC Champions League -MatchDateMumbai City vs Nassaji MazadaranSeptember 18Navabahor vs Mumbai CityOctober 3Al Hilal vs Mumbai CityOctober 23Mumbai City vs AL HialNovember 6Nassaji Mazadaran vs Mumbai CityNovember 28Mumbai City vs NavabahorDecember 4Excerpts:

You have said Mumbai City FC will be representing Indian football on the highest stage in Asia. Given the restructuring of the ACL and continental club football, there is added pressure as your side may be the last Indian club, at least for some time, to play at the top…

No, not at all. India’s only ever had three opportunities in the current format to go and represent the country at the level of the highest level of club competition, you know, FC Goa went in year one. This is now our second consecutive season of doing that. And we’ve worked extremely hard to position ourselves to be able to do that again. So it’s an exciting prospect for us, we know that it might be a while until they start export becomes possible again, in Indian football, but no, no pressure at all. It’s about going and showing what we want to do and what we can do and if we can, if we can do that now and in the same way that it’s very similar way as to what we did in the last campaign. I’ll be extremely happy.

Most fans are eager and excited about MCFC facing Al Hilal and Neymar. What are your prospects in the other games… Where can Mumbai City realistically finish in the group?

This is the thing we don’t we don’t look too much at that. Whether it’s we know obviously the strength of Al Hilal before they brought in the likes of Neymar and the tradition now there’s no they were they are Asia’s most successful club prior to that happening anyway, so we know the strength of that club. The other two teams that we will face are both champions of their own country. The countries are both very strong footballing countries as well. So, as we did last year or last time, we played Air Force One, Al Shabaab and Al Jazira. They’re all very challenging games. And the margin for error is a lot smaller possibly than what the ISL allows. So we need to prepare as well as we can. And we’ve tried to do that. We’ve used the preseason in Thailand, we’ve used the Durand Cup, and we’ve had some things going on here in Mumbai to try and make sure we’re as prepared as we can be. And if we can do that, we’ll put ourselves in the best position, firstly, to perform because that’s the most important thing to me. It’s how we play and how we perform because we’ve shown in the last 12 months if we can do that, and do that consistently. We put ourselves in the best position to get results. So I think we look at the game against Nassaji Mazandaran first. And hopefully, we prepare ourselves as far as we can to play well. And if we do that, we’ll position ourselves well, hopefully to come away with the result.

So many high-profile games sandwiched throughout the domestic calendar. Is it an added headache, given the Indian players may have international commitments? Will that take away focus from the ISL?

I won’t take our focus away. We know we have six Champions League games before Christmas. We know we have 11 ISL games before Christmas, and we know that there is a window in October and a window in November for the national team. So it’s going be a very hectic and busy schedule, but it’s one that we’ve known about for probably the last six months, or since we qualified for the Champions League we’ve known that this was coming. So as long as we know what is coming, we can plan as best we can for that. We can try and position ourselves and our players as well as they can to keep them fresh, to keep them available, to keep them motivated. And to then make sure that we make the best use of our squad, which is going to be hugely important, especially up until Christmas with the number of games and the amount of football exposure that a lot of these players are going to get. So again, we don’t have full control over everything. But what we do have control of, is knowing what is coming and making sure we position ourselves and plan as best as we can to make sure we’re prepared for every game as they come.

Will you prioritise the Champions League games over domestic matches?

We will always put out the strongest side or the best team we feel will be able to firstly perform and then secondly, of course, try and get the result. That will that will never change as long as I’m here. We’ve got a way of working. Obviously, there are different ways that we can do that now. But no we will we will whether it be ACL or ISL. We will put our team that we feel will be able to perform and get the result in those games.

Your take on the number of games some first-team players may be playing, are injuries a concern?

It’s part of football, you play games, we play games or we don’t and there is always an element of risk. The one thing when I look back at kind of the health three years of being here, we try to do as much work as we can with the players away from the pinch and on the pitch to condition their bodies to deal with excess demand and excess stress. Now of course, there are some uncontrollables whether pre-contact injuries but in terms of muscle injuries, we try and make sure that our players are as robust as possible. And then that hopefully puts him in a strong space going into these games, whether it’s a game every once a week, or whether it may be going twice a week as it’s looking likely for the first three or four weeks.

Given that Aakash Mishra or Lallianzuala Chhangte did appear to be playing with some injuries for India and your replacement in the left-back position Sanjeev Stalin was with the India U-23 side. So do you think there is enough squad depth to cover for these key positions?

We face this last year. I think I guess it’s fine. There’s nothing Akash is fully fit and able to play as you see in the Indian games, both where he started and played 90 minutes despite injury concerns. And yeah, Sanjeev was away as well. But we’ve got we’ve got we brought young bellboy back from his loan to try and help in that space. And we’ve got different ways that we can set up now this season. We tried many different things last year, even in the fullback areas where we had Sanjeev, we had Mandar (Rao Dessai) last year and we even tried Vinit Rai in left back. So we have a squad, we’ve got different ways that we can work. Chhangte is fine and he is fully fit and available. And so is Akash.

There have been reports that Apuia has had some difficulties, while with the national team. How important is mental health and keeping players motivated and focused with so many games?

My job is a club level and all I can speak about from the point for about four years since I’ve been here is for me, one of the top young Indian players in the country, not just in terms of how he plays, but also how he approaches his game and how he works. So he’s been a pleasure to work with and very good around our environment. And that’s the reason he’s played as many games and has played as many games as he has for our club for me in particular during my time here. So we have a lot of support around our players here. Apiua is obviously one of many, but as long as again from an account speak from a national level, but from a club level, absolutely no issue here in terms of how he approached his game, and, again, we have a lot of support that we wrap around these players to make sure that they they have everything that they need firstly to be in our lives that they’re in a good space but also then to be able to go out and perform as they can.

Mumbai City also brought in Naseer El Kahayati. Is it an added bonus to have to have so many foreigners who are available for the competition? Is that a good thing?

Yeah, I think so. If there’s the opportunity to bring somebody of El Khayati’s quality. We can now play six foreigners in the Champions League. From the start, which is different to the last campaign when we weren’t, we were only allowed to play three plus one agent spot, so for maximum the other two weren’t even allowed to be on the bench or even in the matchday squad. So while we have the ability to do for six if we want to field six, that’s assuming they’re all fit. There are a lot of games coming up where players might need rest, or they may get injured. To be able to call upon El Khayati to cover and come in to make sure that we stay strong in that space, especially from the foreigners’ side of things, will again just strengthen us and make sure that we can continue to try and play the way we want.

And even though it is not in your hands, you will be playing in Pune. A lot of Indian football fans are eager. What will be your message to them?

The club have worked extremely hard to try and help any of that especially our fans hear from a boy get to go and so there’s another club is communicating directly with them and helping you know those people that would have come to the MFA. My message to them is you know engaged with the club. And we’re hoping to see the same people that supported us so well last year in the stands that allowed us to go on and achieve all the records we did. We are really looking forward to bringing Champions League football to India for the first time. And we’re looking forward to having those fans in there. With us to firstly experience to Champions League football but secondly, try and cheer us on and see the performances at this level of club competition.

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