Friday, December 15, 2006

Abandon Ship

After all the excitement of Barcelona's magnificent performance against Club America last night, it's almost crashing back to earth that we're back in the Olympic Stadium for Auckland City against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors this evening. I don't mean this as a slight against either of these fine sporting establishments. The Olympic Stadium is easily the least loveable of the venues that we have visited over the last five days (in my humble opinion, football stadia with athletics tracks around them should be treated with the sort of disdain usually reserved for reality TV show stars), and it's Friday night - usually a time for excessive boozing and making a fool of myself at home in Brighton. Still, I managed to walk here on my own in good time (I'm counting this as a major achievement, considering that I can still read no Japanese whatsoever and my spoken vocabulary has only expanded to four words), and I'm nice and settled in the Media Centre here, having spent the afternoon looking at shiny things in a frankly bewildering electronics store in Shibuya this afternoon.

So, what to make of this evening's match? Well, first things first: Jeonbuk were somewhat unfortunate to be beaten by Club America in their quarter-final match. They started extremely positively, and it was only a lack of imagination going forward that prevented them from seeing off the Mexicans. It's probably fair to say that they won't need to find such inspiration against the New Zealanders, who struggled to do anything of note against Ahly SC, and were eventually seen off fairly comfortably. As has been noted on here before, though, Jeonbuk seem to have a singularly characterless team. They are the only team of the six that I would still be able to name a player from and, whilst their work ethic and technique are first rate, they lack any sort of attacking spark. Hopefully, with the pressure off tonight, they will loosen their tactical straitjacket and show us what they're capable of.

Auckland City worked hard against Ahly SC, but their defeat was as deserved as it was expected. An excellent performance from Jonathan Perry pegged Ahly back until five minutes into the second half, though it is worth remembering that, had the Egyptians not been extremely wasteful in the first half, the match might have been over by half-time. I don't personally like the notion that any team in any competition are there to "make up the numbers", but the situation regarding their involvement shows the slightly farcical turn that football has taken in this part of the world. Australia withdrew from the Oceania Football Confederation to join the Asian Football Confederation, reckoning that the increased competition at national level would help their chances of development on the pitch. This has meant that the Australian clubs are now treated as Asian, and can't qualify to represent the OFC. The New Zealand Knights may be falling off the bottom of the A-League (a subject that has already been covered on here), but they are still the best team in New Zealand. Auckland's qualification was almost by default. To get here, they beat teams from Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. I don't mean to sound rude here, but FIFA have to address this issue before next year's tournament.

The answer, as I've said before, is to expand it. The World Club Cup can absorb one or two teams of this size in a sixteen club tournament, but there's nowhere to hide in a six club competition. Auckland were terrific against Ahly, don't get me wrong. They played their hearts out and will certainly have gained massively from the experience of coming here and the increased exposure that they have received from it, but the question of whether they should be here at all is a completely different one. I certainly wish them good luck tonight. This tournament could do with a surprise or two.


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