On the whole the Club World Cup is a fairly strange competition. This year Auckland City reminded me of one of the positives, though…
Last year I pretty much dismissed any pretentions the Club World Cup had to being a serious competition, and with Chelsea the European representatives this year my enthusiasm for the tournament had not exactly increased.
Although I was delighted that Sanfrecce Hiroshima would get a chance to exhibit their brand of attacking football – not to mention their purple kit and elaborate goal celebrations – to a slightly wider audience, the lack of a potential Barcelona v. Santos face-off in the final meant there was very little glamour or excitement in the air as things creaked into action.
Without the distraction of the Messi and Neymar sideshow, however, it turned out that I was able to focus on one of the few positives of FIFA’s money-making extravaganza; the chance for the minnows to get their 15 minutes.
Auckland City, the undoubted underdog of the competition, were back in town, and having met some of the staff and players when they competed last year (losing 2-0 in the opening game to Kashiwa Reysol) I paid slightly more attention to the club on this occasion.
Part of the reason for that was the sheer amount of effort they were putting into being noticed, and as an amateur club with extremely limited potential as things currently stand with the game in New Zealand they were doing fantastically to connect with football fans in any way they could.
Whether it was by going beyond the call of duty to help me write a feature on their Japanese full-back Takuya Iwata – formerly of FC Gifu and now working as a delivery driver by day – or attempting tweets in Japanese to engage with local supporters they demonstrated that football is, for the majority, a social activity based around communication and cooperation.
Last year I spoke to the side’s Argentinean striker Emiliano Tade, and even though he and his side had just been eliminated from the tournament he demonstrated genuine excitement at what he had experienced.
“It’s an honour to be in a big tournament,” he said. “All my life I wanted to be here, it was my dream. It was really exciting and I’m really proud.”
That is exactly what I would say. Not because I’m a media-trained professional and it’s what you’re supposed to say but because, think about it, you’re playing out there in front of the TV cameras and thousands of fans when not so long ago you were washing dishes and just hoping for a kick-about (as Tade had revealed was his situation when he’d arrived in New Zealand).
This year, too, the side wasn’t short of interesting stories, and although Iwata provided the key focus for obvious reasons, goalkeeper Tamati Williams was also well worth having a chat with.
“I had three and a half or four years off,” he replied to a Kiwi journalist who, fully aware of the answer, had cheekily enquired what he’d been up to of late.
“I was a full-time model,” he continued. “I always struggle to say that with a straight face,” he added, true to his word breaking out into a slightly embarrassed grin. “It was good – I had a great experience with that, but I had to put the football on the back burner. At the time I was in the national team, so it didn’t sit well with a lot of the coaches.”
That decision can’t have been an easy one to make but, away from the obscene riches and glamour at the very top of the pyramid, the reality for many players worldwide – even professional – is that they have to make ends meet.
“The next step is obviously going up to playing as a professional,” Williams concluded, “but it’s not something I have to worry about. If the bridge comes along, then I’ll worry about it then, but otherwise the first priority is [playing] football and study.”
Comments like that don’t generate as many hits on the websites as Messi v. Ronaldo, but they do make for refreshing reading. The grounded and dedicated players at Auckland are primarily playing for playing’s sake, and thanks to their participation in the Club World Cup I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for their results from now on.