Seconds Out, Round One!
Well, I hope you’re paying attention at the back, there. There are some slight differences to this year’s FIFA World Club Cup – most notably that FIFA have invited the Japanese champions, Urawa Red Diamonds, to make the number of entrants in this year’s jamboree up to seven. The seven entrants this year are as follows: Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan – host nation and , Sepahan (Iran – Asian Football Confederation Champions League Runners-Up), Etoile Sportive Sahel (Tunisia – African Champions League Winners), CF Pachuca (Mexico – CONCACAF Champions Cup Winners), Waitakere United (New Zealand – OFC Champions League Winners), Boca Juniors (Argentina – Copa Libertadores Winners) and AC Milan (Italy – UEFA Champions League Winners). Matches start tomorrow morning, and the schedule lines up as follows:
07.12.07 – Sepahan (Iran) v Waitakere United (New Zealand) – Playoff
09.12.07 – Étoile du Sahel (Tunisia) v Pachuca (Mexico) – Q/F 1
10.12.07 – Sepahan/Waitakere v Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan) – Q/F 2
12.12.07 – Winner of QF1 v Boca Juniors (Argentina) – Semifinal 1
13.12.07 – Winner of QF2 v AC Milan (Italy) – Semifinal 2
16.12.07 – Loser of SF1 v Loser of SF2 – Third Place Match
16.12.07 – Winner of SF1 v Winner of SF2 – Final
I’m going to have a quick look at the two teams that are playing in tomorrow, this evening, because Sepahan and Waitakere United might not necessarily be household names.
Sepahan are the AFC Champions League runners-up, and come from Iran. They qualified for the AFC Champions League, not as Iranian League champions, but as the winners of the Hafzi Cup (the Iranian equivalent to the FA Cup). In fact, this team that are now playing off to become the World Champions have only ever won one championship themselves – the Iranian Championship, in 2003. They were beaten in the final of the AFC Champions League by Urawa Red Diamonds (more of whom in the next couple of days or so), but qualified anyway, as Urawa qualified as, effectively, the “host club”. They’re hardly what you’d call a “small” club – they play in a 50,000 capacity stadium – but their players are hardly what you’d call household names. Their coach, Luka Bonacic is a Croat whose main achievement was being sacked by Hajduk Split having won nine out of his ten matches in charge in 1997 (after his replacement turned out to be a disaster, he came back and took them to second place in the Croatian league). He’s possibly best known for being attacked at his home in 2006, a set of circumstances that resulted in him ending up at Sepahan in the first place.
Waitakere United may well be in the mix with Boca Juniors and AC Milan, but they inhabit a different footballing universe to these sporting giants. A twelve match season ticket to their stadium costs £9.50 (and includes entry into a draw for an LCD television), and they play at the 5,000 capacity Fred Taylor Park. They’re coached by former player Chris Millichich. Amateurs and semi-professionals they may be, but there are two names that stand out like sore thumbs in their line-up. Darren Bazeley and Neil Emblen. Bazeley played for England under-21s and was a regular fixture in the midfield of the under-achieving Wolverhampton Wanderers team of the mid-1990s, and also played for Watford and Walsall. Emblen played seven years at Molineux, and also managed to fit in spells at Millwall, Norwich City, Crystal Palace and Walsall. These aren’t just players whose names ring a bell – they’re players that I’ve seen play. This is very exciting. They’re both in their late thirties now, so they might not be as quick as they used to be (to be fair, I don’t think that either of them were that quick to start with), but this is quite something. Forget about Kaka and Ronaldo – the real stars of this tournament are playing in tomorrow night’s opening match.