12 April 2022 - Chelsea

Chelsea's leading light

Aritro Sarkar

Champions Journalist fan report Aritro Sarkar sees Christian Pulisic as more than just a tricky winger, but as a beacon of hope for those were football isn't the number one sport

Christian Pulisic did not even look up. The ball stayed glued to his feet, while he shimmied and swayed around the flailing obstacles in white, walked past a collapsed heap in Thibaut Courtois, and smashed it into the net. It was 1-0 to Chelsea against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, the goal that broke the deadlock and brought the tie to life. Chelsea eventually won 3-1 on aggregate, with Pulisic also creating the all-important second goal in the Blues’ 2-0 second leg win in London.

None of those heroics were to be this time around, as the irresistible Karim Benzema - aging like fine French wine - bludgeoned through Chelsea’s rearguard almost by himself, bagging all three goals in Madrid’s 3-1 quarterfinal win. The second leg increasingly resembles a foregone formality.

Yet, I’d like to reminisce on Pulisic’s display from last year, perhaps to fill myself with optimism ahead of the second leg but also to reflect on his journey to becoming America’s first ever male Champions League winner.

It is that achievement I think about quite a lot, especially as an Indian, since I’ve never seen anyone from my country even play the Champions League, let alone win it.

That is not, however, to suggest that the tournament - or indeed, football - is not big in this country. Indeed, in pockets of the subcontinent, such as the southern state of Kerala, the western state of Goa, or states such as Mizoram and Manipur in India’s Northeast, football reigns supreme. The eastern city of Kolkata is home to one of the fiercest rivalries in world football, between the two regional behemoths, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. In each such region, youngsters with the same degree of talent as a young Pulisic would gleefully indulge in kickabouts in their local parks, or the beach, or even on the harsh tarmac of an empty road.

Christian Pulisic battles with Real Madrid's Casemiro.

That naturally begs the question: why have there been no Indians to ever play in the Champions League?

It is a pointed question, admittedly. It is not true that Indians don’t have the talent or skill to make it in Europe’s greatest club competition. Indeed, Mohammed Salim from Calcutta famously turned out for Scottish giants Celtic FC in the 1930s, where his ability on the ball dazzled the Glaswegians. He is credited with being the first Indian to play in Europe. In 2020, Bala Devi turned out for their archrivals Rangers, and became the first Indian to score when she nicked a goal in their 9-0 hammering of Motherwell in the Scottish League. But while this shows that Indians, in terms of skill, are no less, these were people who had to swim against the tide. Outside cricket, sport is not generally regarded as a secure career option - for there is very limited investment. Those with resources - businesspeople and fans alike - often look at European games for inspiration, but rarely invest their money, time, or emotions in the local game.

European football - self-styled as the best in the world - too is, ironically enough, only waking up to the rest of the world. Even today, there is scant Asian representation in these ‘best leagues in the world’. For the longest time, to even qualify to win the Ballon D’Or, a player had to be based in Europe - Pele, therefore, never won the coveted award. The historical gatekeeping of the beautiful game will invariably have an impact on those left out. Today, in other parts of the world, it is the hyper-commercialization of European football that has led to such a spike in popularity - but it is only sustained investment of time and money in local, grassroots football that is required for actual sporting success in countries like India.

‘Why are there no Indian players in the Champions League?’ is a question that accidentally exposes the inequalities with which our beloved sport and its teams operate in. It needs to do far more to become a truly global, representative sport. The responsibility for that is on those on top, as well as those who can make a difference locally.

It was local investment in Hershey, Pennsylvania that created Christian Pulisic, who today stands as a Champions League and CONCACAF Gold Cup winner. Indian footballers warrant the same kind of investment - there has been enough swimming against the tide. It is time to make the waves dance to our tunes.

Our Champions Journalist fan reporter:
Aritro Sarkar
About Champions Journalist fan reporters: These blogs have been written by winners of our annual Champions Journalist competition as well as a selection of editors from various fan page accounts. Together they offer their unique insights from the group stages all the way to the final.
Champions Journalist
With thanks to our Champions Journalist winner
Aritro Sarkar
Champions Journalist is an annual competition that gives fans a chance to write about their club for Champions Journal.