Why cricket-hub Mumbai can't dream of big-time football?
The Mumbai City Football Club plays in the AFC Champions League, but its home matches will not be played in a Mumbai stadium
Mumbai's football scene is experiencing both growth and challenges. In terms of popularity and participation, the sport is on the rise with artificial turfs sprouting all over the metropolis and doing brisk business. At the professional level, however, opportunities appear to be dwindling. Contrasting with the glory days of Godfrey Pereira and Khalid Jamil in the 1990s, the standard of the local football league has steadily declined, leading to decreased interest in the tournament. Former players are bewildered by the changing times.
Amid this gloomy scenario, local football enthusiasts still have one consistent source of action: games of the Indian Super League club, Mumbai City Football Club (MCFC). Even that source of excitement has been temporarily taken away ahead of the club's outing in Asia's biggest club competition.
Having qualified for this season’s AFC Champions League, football fans in Mumbai had been eager to watch their team take on Asia’s best in their three home games, starting with Iran's FC Nassaji Mazandaran on Monday. The prospect of Brazilian superstar Neymar flaunting his talent in Mumbai with his Saudi club Al Hilal could’ve brightened had the city not lost ground in terms of having a suitable stadium to host the game.
On August 22, MCFC announced that they would play their home matches in Pune and not at their usual home ground, the Mumbai Football Arena in suburban Andheri. The club said that the infrastructure at the Mumbai Football Arena did not meet the criteria for hosting Champions League games. MCFC head coach, Des Buckingham, said in a recent press conference, "We would have loved to play at the MFA, but it's not possible due to regulations. The club had to make this decision to stay within the region."
Despite the decline in attendance at football matches, the sport still holds appeal in Mumbai. In the past, matches in tournaments like the Rovers Cup, organised by the Western India Football Association (WIFA) until 2000-01, would draw capacity crowds, especially when Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal clashed at the Cooperage ground.
The potential participation of Neymar could undoubtedly have had a similar effect, but for the absence of a suitable stadium fit to host him and other quality teams of Asia.
The question then arises: why does a thriving city and commercial hub like Mumbai lack a stadium of international standard?
Godfrey Pereira is one of those to express frustration. "It is very sad that Mumbai, being the hub of India, lacks a proper football stadium,” he said. “We have cricket, hockey, athletics — everything except football. It's disheartening that international stars like Neymar are expected to come, but we don't get a chance to witness them. You have to travel to Pune to watch them play. I hope Mumbai gets a stadium soon."
The issue is not that straightforward. It involves acquiring suitable land in the right location. The Cooperage ground, located within 2km of the Wankhede Stadium, has both land and location. But the ownership is the issue. The Mumbai Cricket Association owns the Wankhede Stadium and that makes a big difference in promoting the game in this renowned cricket ground. Unlike that the Mumbai Football Association (MFA), responsible for running the game in the city, has no control over Cooperage. The land lease belongs to the WIFA, the state body comprising all the districts of Maharashtra, including Mumbai.
MFA has always been on the lookout for a ground to run the city league. Recently, it held matches at the Neville D’Souza ground in Bandra Reclamation, which has an astroturf field and temporary change rooms for the players. ISL games are played at the Andheri Sports Club.
Pereira said the Cooperage ground, which has a lot of space, should have been converted into an international stadium with facilities that meet FIFA and AFC standards. However, opting for astroturf instead of natural grass was a blunder. Leave alone not meeting international standards, it even prevents ISL matches from taking place there. Legal issues with those living nearby also complicated previous attempts to build a bigger stadium.
“The Cooperage is an international size ground; it could have been utilised to make a better stadium. I understand their interest in converting it into an artificial turf so that they could utilised in the monsoon season which lasts four months in Mumbai. But I don’t think their vision was fulfilled. They have built a stadium by erecting temporary stands but they could have built a better stadium with a grass ground. That would be an ideal situation for football in Mumbai,” said Pereira.
WIFA secretary Souter Vaz said breaking the current setup and making a fresh stadium was an option, but it would require plenty of funds — he estimated around ₹70 crore -- which WIFA currently lacks. He remained optimistic about it, suggesting that support from the state government and sponsorships could make it feasible. He points to the model of the MCA's Indoor Academy at Bandra Kurla Complex, funded partly by building a clubhouse and selling memberships.
Sudhakar Rane, MFA secretary and long-time Cooperage regular, lamented a lack of progress in building a stadium. “I have been hearing from my childhood that a stadium is being built at Cooperage. As per my understanding five designs have been finalised but nothing has materialised.”
He suggested that only a state government can allocate suitable land for a stadium in Mumbai, emphasising that land availability and rates in the city present significant challenges to building a stadium anywhere. “What is the rate of land in Mumbai? Till the time the government takes interest, it is difficult,” MFA secretary said.
“Our best chance was during the Under-17 World Cup, but nothing happened," he added, referring to the 2017 tournament where Navi Mumbai’s multi-purpose DY Patil Stadium hosted matches. “How Sharad Pawar razed the old (Wankhede) stadium and constructed new stands for the 2011 Cricket World Cup. So couldn’t a stadium have been built at Cooperage for football?”
Even as Mumbai City enters the field for their ‘home’ AFC Champions League games in Pune, hope floats that one day Mumbai will have a world-class football venue that can host the likes of Neymar while also revitalising its own football scene.