Saturday’s AFC Cup final is a battle of contrasts in a multitude of ways as the grand old club of Iraqi football, Al Quwa Al Juwiya, founded way back in 1931 at a British airforce base on the outskirts of Baghdad meets the upstarts from southern India, Bengaluru FC, who have arguably done more for the cause of putting their nation’s football on the continental map than any other – despite being founded barely three years ago.
It’s a clash of west and east, of an Iraqi team that’s fairly plundered goals with Hammadi Ahmed’s 15 for the tournament remarkably seven higher than his nearest rival, against an Indian outfit whose top scorer, Sunil Chhetri, has five to his name.
The slick passing, technical capabilities of the Indian side up against the more robust, physical strengths of their opponents and of a West Asian team with just the one loss all tournament against their rivals from southern Asia who tasted defeat three times in the group stage alone.
Of a club with 37 trophies in their cabinet against three for their Indian rivals and one who are playing, nominally at least, on their home patch – all of which paints a clear picture that Bengaluru FC enter this clash as clear outsiders.
The leveller is that for all their history this will be the first time that Al Quwa Al Juwiya have appeared in the final of the AFC Cup – the same for Bengaluru – as well as the fact that due to the security situation in their homeland with the final being held in Qatar the sizeable expatriate Indian community may actually outnumber the support for the ‘home’ Iraqi club.
Regardless this is an historic moment for both clubs, but especially for Bengaluru who are the first Indian team to reach the final of the AFC Cup, or indeed any major Asian tournament, and who have been receiving messages of support from a host of fellow Indian clubs and celebrities as they carry the hopes of their nation with them in Qatar.
FOX Sports Asia caught up with one of the team’s – and Indian football’s – brightest young stars, midfielder Alwyn George, for this exclusive interview on the eve of his nation’s biggest ever club match.
FSA: Alwyn, thank you for taking the time to speak with Fox Sports Asia – you are a great example of a modern Indian footballer who was raised through the academy system and are the prototype of the new generation of technically adept young Indian players and now you stand with this club about to make history. Is this the culmination of childhood dreams?
AG: This is the biggest stage that I’ve been on and when Sunil Chhetri says this is the biggest game of his career you know you’re involved in something special. You get into sport to be able to stand on podiums, wear medals and lift cups and tomorrow presents all of us that chance. It has been a wonderful journey and I hope this ends the way we want it to.
FSA: How will the match be won or lost?
AG: They are side that loves to score and we are no different. There are so many factors that can decide a game but for me, it’s about who is willing to give that extra bit on the pitch. We could play really well and lose or have a poor game but could nick a goal that wins us the title. That’s football for you!
FSA: This is the first time that you will have faced an opponent from the West, and that brings a vastly different style of football – where do you see the strengths of Al Quwa Al Juwiya?
AG: Like I mentioned, they are a team that plays very attacking and at times, physical football. We’ve been watching videos on them for some time now and our coaching staff have constantly been feeding us with information and on how we can nullify their threats. But it will all boil down to what happens on the pitch.
FSA: One thing that often frustrates opponents against Iraqi sides is the ‘gamesmanship’ with time wasting and ‘injury’ and so on – are you prepared for this?
AG: I guess the solution is to score early and score more than once! But on a serious note, we will be out there to play our game and won’t be focusing on these aspects.
FSA: There’s a nice symmetry with the fact that the last major tournament for India was in Qatar (2011 AFC Asian Cup) – the nation that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup – do you see this final as marking a major step in the evolution of Indian football?
AG: No matter how this ends, Indian football has taken a big step in Bengaluru making the final. This feat has captured the imagination of the country in a way that I have not seen before. People from all across have been sending us messages of encouragement and it’s also nice to see so many celebrities across fields take to social media to congratulate us. Qatar is destined for big things with regards to Asian football and I hope we write our own little chapter of success here.