Mixing with the big boys

The Club World Cup has always been won by the established powers from Europe and  South America, but that doesn’t stop the smaller sides from dreaming. Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City get the 2015 edition underway in Yokohama tonight as they play-off to enter the tournament proper, and perhaps earn the right to go head-to-head with one of the big boys… (Also available in English here / 日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, December 10th, 2015

If all goes according to plan, River Plate will be facing Barcelona in the Club World Cup final at Nissan Stadium on December 20th.

Of course, in football things don’t always go according to plan, as TP Mazembe will happily tell you. In 2010 the Congolese upset the odds to progress to the Club World Cup final against Inter Milan in UAE, and although they lost 3-0 against Rafael Benitez’s side, the mere fact they made it that far was enough of an achievement for the CAF champions.

Mazembe are aiming for more upsets as the competition returns to Japan this year, and will provide the opposition for the winner of Thursday’s play-off match between two more sides hoping for their day in the sun, Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City.

By virtue of their dominance in Oceania, Auckland are practically synonymous with the Club World Cup now and this will be their seventh appearance at the competition, at which they will also set a new record for most matches played; 13 (and counting, if they overcome Sanfrecce).

That tally was boosted hugely by their showing in Morocco last year, when the New Zelanders demonstrated they can be more than just makeweights as they progressed to the semi-final. They lost to San Lorenzo of Argentina 2-1 in extra time but went on to pick up bronze after beating Mexican side Cruz Azul on penalties in the third-place play-off.

Having gained a taste of success, Ramon Tribulietx’s side are determined to offer up another strong showing in 2015.

“For that momentum to grow and snowball into the final game and to come third, and for a New Zealand team to get a FIFA medal, it’s something you can only dream of – and for us to do that was a dream come true for football and sport in New Zealand,” Navy Blues stalwart and New Zealand’s most-capped player Ivan Vicelich told me last week. “I think it’s helped to fly the flag there and slowly it’s helped to grow the sport.”

Last year’s antics will undoubtedly have boosted confidence and Auckland have every right to fancy their chances against Sanfrecce, with the two coming head-to-head at the same stage three years ago and only being separated by a Toshihiro Aoyama screamer midway through the second half.

Vicelich, who has travelled with the team but not been named in the squad this time around on account of injury, is optimistic but hesitant to get carried away.

FIFA Club World Cup 2015

We’re looking to be competitive,” he said. “We’re realistic; we understand the gap and the difference between domestic competition in New Zealand and the domestic competition in Japan. We know it’s going to be very difficult in the first game. But we hope to be competitive, and if we can be then we have a chance.

“They’re really cultured players and very good technically, and personally I see that with the J.League. The league is a very good standard right through, it’s not like there’s one team just winning by 30 points or something like that. We’re going to have to try to work on just bringing our players confidence and ideas up, and to know that we can again compete at this level.”

Sanfrecce are likewise eager to leave a better account of themselves than they did in their last outing, and come into the match full of confidence after sealing the J1 championship on Saturday.

After beating Auckland in 2012 Hajime Moriyasu’s side lost 2-1 to Al-Ahly of Egypt, and although they did then go on to beat Ulsan Hyundai 3-2 in the fifth-place play-off Mihael Mikic is determined to leave a stronger impression this time around.

“We really want to make one step more on the last time – that means our big dream is to play the semi-final,” he said after the J.League Championship final. “Then if we make it to the semi-final everything is possible.

“We want to represent Japanese soccer, and the quality of Japanese soccer. That is a big motivation for us. My opinion is that Japanese soccer is moving up a level every year and we must show to the world.”

The carrot on the end of the stick is a tantalizing clash with River Plate, and the opportunity to upset the apple cart and prevent the final that everybody anticipates.

“That is really big, especially for our small team,” the 35-year-old said. “That is really a dream. We respect everybody but we aren’t scared of anybody. We are testing ourselves and testing our team and testing our style – we are testing everything.”

And their first opponents’ achievement at the last edition resonated with the Croatian winger.

“I saw the result, and it was also a little bit lucky,” he said, before adding with a knowing smile, “but without luck you cannot make a result like this. We will give our best and hope we can make a surprise.”


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