On Monday in this space I brought forward a few ideas for making the annual FIFA Club World Cup a better organised, more relevant tournament, one of which involved growing the event to eight teams and holding a traditional group stage.
Scheduling is one of the Club World Cup`s many shortcomings, and a group stage would have prevented the three-day gap between the competition`s opener and the next round of matches.
On Thursday host side Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the J.League champions, kicked off the 2012 instalment of world football`s only true, international club tournament with a 1-0 win over Oceania Champions League winners Auckland City, who were making their fourth Club World Cup appearance.
Attendance—another of the event`s weaknesses—was modest (about 25,000 fans came through the gates at the 72,000-capacity Yokohama International Stadium), but any momentum the event might have build, especially with the home team winning, was dealt a serious blow by the reality that the competition`s next match would only be played on Sunday.
Granted, the Club World Cup is built more for television and sponsorships than local attendance (which is ironic given its relatively limited TV exposure in many countries), but the fact remains that for any tournament to be successful the local fan-base must be engaged—thus the inclusion of host teams in these sorts of things.
In any case, there will be two matches played on Sunday before another three-day break, then the semifinal round on Wednesday and Thursday when the competition really gets going and, finally, the championship match on Sunday, December 16. The representatives of Europe and South America get byes to the semifinals—yet another of the tournament`s flaws—and in six of the eight Club World Cups so far staged they have met in the final, with the UEFA Champions League winners emerging triumphant on four occasions.
If that pattern is to be interrupted, this is a good a year as any for it to happen. Copa Libertadores winners Corinthians were sent to Japan from São Paulo with tremendous fanfare, and the club`s self-belief coupled with a very positive, confident period in Brazilian football has combined to make Timão, at the very least, co-favourites with European Cup holders Chelsea.
Monterrey, Al-Ahly and Ulsan Hyundai will be heard from as well. CONCACAF representatives Monterrey are making their second consecutive appearance at the Club World Cup and will be looking to avenge the disappointment of last year, where they went out on penalties to Kashiwa Reysol in the quarterfinals. Ahly won the African Champions League despite not having played a league match since the Port Said riot in February. Ulsan, finally, were the somewhat surprising winners of the Asian Champions League but only finished fifth in the 2012 K.League season.
Despite its faults, the Club World Cup does tend to serve up some interesting storylines. Here are just a few ahead of Sunday`s quarterfinals.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima: They qualified for the Club World Cup as tournament hosts after winning a first Japanese title since 1970. Veteran striker Hisato Sato—an occasional Japan international—had one of the best seasons of his career at 30 and led the top flight with 22 goals. Sanfrecce finished six points clear of runners-up Vegalta Sendai and kept an airtight defense over the course of the domestic campaign, with central defenders Hiroki Mizumoto and Kazuhiko Chiba running a tight ship in front of goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa. They’ll face Al-Ahly in Toyota on Sunday.
In their own words: “We’ve only had a short time to prepare since the end of the Japanese season, but my players were motivated [against Auckland City]. We were aggressive and set up to attack, and we created a number of chances although, at the end of the day, we unfortunately took only one of them.” – manager Hajime Moriyasu (FIFA.com)
Al-Ahly: When the 2011-12 Egyptian Premier League season was suspended following the Port Said stadium riot on February 1, Al-Ahly were second in the table with 36 points from 15 matches, just a point back of leaders Haras El Hodood. It was nearly two months until Ahly played their next competitive match—against Ethiopian Coffee in Addis Ababa. They drew 0-0 but won the return leg 3-0 thanks to a pair of Mohamed Aboutrika goals. Widely regarded as one of the finest players never to ply his trade in Europe, Aboutrika scored six Champions League goals as Ahly advanced all the way to the final, where they beat Tunisian giants Esperance over two legs.
In their own words: “I’m delighted to be here and play in my first FIFA competition. I hope we can reach the final and take on Chelsea and [Fernando] Torres, who is one of my favourite players.” – striker Gedo (FIFA.com)
Ulsan Hyundai: They have only two domestic titles to their name (1996 and 2005) and qualified for the 2012 Asian Champions League as K.League runners-up. After finishing top of a group that included FC Tokyo, Brisbane Roar and Beijing Goan their Champions League path took them through highly-rated Kashiwa Reysol (Japan), Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia) and Bunyokdor (Uzbekistan) in the knockout stage before they dispatched Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli in the final, which they hosted. Brazilian striker Rafinha led the side in Champions League scoring with seven goals. Ulsan will face Monterrey on Sunday in Toyota.
In their own words: “We know that ahead of us we’ve got a great competition and a magnificent opportunity to show the world our worth, our quality and what we’re capable of. We’re hoping to show all that right from the first game.” –striker Lee Keunho (FIFA.com)
Monterrey: Apertura winners in 2010, they came second in the 2012 Clausura and were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage of the 2012 Apertura by eventual winners Tijuana. With their ticket to the Club World Cup punched after a two-legged win over Santos Laguna in the CONCACAF Champions League final in April, they endured a mostly disappointing domestic season and barely qualified for the playoffs, leaking goals along the way. That said, in Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris they have a striking tandem capable of doing the business against just about anybody.
In their own words: “This is a great opportunity for us to set the record straight. We’re coming to Japan with higher expectations than last year—no doubt about it. Monterrey are capable of becoming champions, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.” –manager Victor Manuel Vucetich (FIFA.com)
Corinthians: After a forgettable start to the 2012 Brazilian championship Corinthians got themselves together and wound up finishing a respectable sixth in the table. None of their goalscorers finished in the division’s top 10, but then again this is a side built from the goal out. Twenty-five-year-old goalkeeper Cássio was one of the heroes of the club’s first successful Copa Libertadores campaign, and Brazil internationals Paulinho and Ralf operate one of the tightest midfields in South American football. One of the more interesting storylines involving this Corinthians side has to do with striker Emerson Sheik, who played six seasons in Japan and says much of his education, both in football and life, was learned in the country. Corinthians will play either Sanfrecce Hiroshima or Al-Ahly on December 12 in Toyota.
In their own words: “I lived in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, had a short spell in São Paulo and came [to Japan]. I had all my education in Japan and I learned respect here, beyond professional football. The Japanese people are teachers in how to have respect for others.” – striker Emerson Sheik
Chelsea: Exactly 200 days after beating Bayern Munich on penalties to win the UEFA Champions League, Chelsea crashed out of Europe’s premiere club competition at the group stage. By that time they had fired European and FA Cup-winning manager Roberto Di Mateo and replaced him with former Valencia and Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez—a move that proved rather unpopular with the club’s supporters. Presently third in the Premier League and 10 points back of leaders Manchester United, the Blues have won just one of their last seven matches in all competitions, and until putting six past Danish champions Nordsjaelland on Wednesday they had managed to score only a single goal in four outings. They’ll face either Ulsan Hyundai or Monterrey on December 13 in Yokohama.
In their own words: “I’m looking forward to [the Club World Cup]. It’s a competition I’ve never had a chance to play in. Not many people can say ‘I won the Club World Cup’…That’s something you would like to achieve so I’m looking forward to the tournament and I hope, after having missed out on the Super Cup, it will be a trophy we win.” – goalkeeper Petr Cech