The World in Union

by Tom Clover

Perhaps appropriately for a tournament accused of being all about money, we begin in a city named after a car. Since prehistoric times, there is evidence of a settlement at Koromo, slightly east of Nagoya, and the area prospered with the silk manufacturers of the nineteenth century.

As the twentieth developed, however, local entrepreneur Kiichiro Toyoda looked for a more profitable alternative to the antiquated fruits of his loom, and settled upon the motor car. By 1959, the rapidly expanding town was renamed Toyota, and its entire livelihood was dependent upon the Tsutsumi plant, headquarters of the giant corporation. Half a million people now reside in the city, and many, in their infrequent leisure time, will take in a football match at the unsurprisingly named Toyota Stadium.

Nagoya Grampus Eight play their home games here, as do the Toyota Verblitz, a rugby team bizarrely named for a car, the Italian for green, and the German for war. Their frequent duels with rivals Toyota Industries Shuttles must be something to behold. The stadium itself is, as one might expect, impressively built. Steep tiers of deep red seating rise spectacularly from pitch level, culminating in an extraordinary roof which can, if so desired, fold back and forth like an accordion. It is on this pristine surface that the first five games of the FIFA Club World Cup are taking place.

The tournament is given scant regard in Europe, particularly the UK. It has rather failed to achieve its target, of being the event which determines the finest team in world football. Money and insularity combine to make Europe comfortable in the assertion that their Champions de facto earn the accolade, rather as America crowns its Super Bowl winners ‘World Champions’. In recent years, their teams have indeed dominated, winning the last four finals. Their stars have shone with consistent lustre, the most recent winners of the tournament’s Golden Ball are Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney and Kaka.

For those trying to dethrone the European giants, the tournament represents a stellar opportunity to showcase their talents on the world stage. Last year’s finalists, TP Mazembe, took the chance to show the globe a rare positive aspect of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and several of their players have earned lucrative European contracts into the bargain. This year, the stage could be set for Santos, a vibrant, youthful team of remarkable talent, to press Barcelona for the title. All eyes, including those of his Catalan suitors, will be on the glittering forward Neymar, continuing his improbably long stay with the Brazilian side.

The tournament’s opening game was a playoff between Kashiwa Reysol, champions of the host nation, and Auckland City, representing the Oceanic federation. For the New Zealanders, the media glare was a world away from the verdant beauty of their Kiwitea Street home, a park encircled by palm fronds and grassy banks, where spectators are accommodated in wide-brimmed marquees. The attendance in Toyota was sparse, particularly disappointing given the presence of a Japanese side. Several thousand fans of Kashiwa Reysol have made the four hour drive to support their team, their yellow flags and banners dominating one end of the stadium. In truth, they are one of the smaller clubs in the country; despite winning the J League, they attracted the third-lowest average attendance, just 9,800. The New Zealanders, who never once reached an attendance of 1,000 in domestic competition, unsurprisingly failed to bring any visible support.

The game, in truth, was rather a disappointment, the gulf in quality between the two sides apparent from the outset. The New Zealanders defended gamely, but when Junya Tanaka beat Jacob Stooley at his near post on 37 minutes, the result seemed decided. Four minutes later, the Auckland defence failed to clear a free kick, and Masado Kudo poked home from close range. The second half saw a dense fog descend, both in the air and in the quality of play. No further goals were scored, with the Japanese side very comfortable. One of the problems of this tournament is that Auckland will play only this single game before returning to New Zealand. It would surely be of benefit to amend the early stages, perhaps constructing two pools of three teams, to prevent teams travelling across the globe for a single match.

Two further teams were to fall victim of the “one and done” problem. Having seen off Auckland, Kashiwa Reysol faced Monterrey, of Mexico, just three days later. The CONCACAF representatives looked sharp throughout, their attack led by the instantly recognisable Chilean Humberto Suazo. Reysol scored against the run of play, and held on grimly after Suazo levelled the scores. Penalty kicks were required to send the Mexicans, and their impressively large bank of supporters, home in disappointment. Seven thousand miles for one game cannot, surely, be sensible. Reysol will now face Santos, having shown little so far t6 suggest that they can upset the Brazilians, though their familiarity with the Toyota ground will surely be a considerable advantage.

The other quarter final pitted Esperance de Tunis against Al-Sadd, of Qatar, for the right to meet Barcelona. Esperance arrived fresh from their remarkable triumph in the African Champions League, though a mixed record outside North Africa suggested that they would do well to emulate Mazembe’s run to the final. Al-Sadd, by contrast, is a tough, streetwise outfit. Well used to winning outside the Qatari desert, their Asian Champions League triumph included two victories in South Korea, and a remarkable 3-0 win against Sepahan, in the fierce environment of Isfahan, Iran. Tipped by some good judges as a live outsider for the tournament, the battle-hardened Qataris simply had too much guile for their Tunisian rivals. Both goals, unsurprisingly, came from close range, Al-Sadd showing greater physical threat and bravery than Esperance at set pieces.

Al-Sadd will provide Barcelona with a stiff test, but it is hardly conceivable to imagine the Cup heading to anywhere other than Catalonia, such is the dominance currently exuded by Barcelona. The tournament, however, will fulfil its purpose, to unite the club teams of the varying continents and federations, providing a chance for the Davids of Oceania and CONCACAF to go up against the Goliaths of Europe. It deserves somewhat greater exposure than it receives.

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