Club World Cup 2011: The “Easiest” Path

Posted on November 17, 2011 5:05 pm

Early this morning (here on the East coast), FIFA conducted the draw for the 2011 Club World Cup in Nagoya, Japan. Circumstances didn’t allow me to stay up and watch; as it turns out, I didn’t miss anything. There was no live coverage of the draw on FIFA’s website, and I only found out the result when FIFA published an article after the fact. But I do mainly focus on CONCACAF tournaments, so this is par for the course.

Speaking of our region, I am sure that no one who watched the last match of the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League has forgotten how Monterrey (CONCACAF/Mexico) held on against a relentless onslaught from Real Salt Lake at a packed and energetic Rio Tinto Stadium. They managed to win the continental championship in spite of a sub-par domestic campaign (they only reached the playoffs on the last matchday of the Clausura regular season); and after having missed out on the playoffs in the current Apertura, the rayados will have plenty of time to rest up and prepare for their debut on the biggest stage.

Before we get into the matchup that awaits them, let me say one thing to this tournament’s detractors: yes, the current competitive imbalance in the Club World Cup discourages neutrals from tuning in before the inevitable UEFA v. CONMEBOL final (last year notwithstanding). And for fans of European football, the drop in quality from UEFA Champions League matches to, say, CWC quarterfinals is significant. But I appreciate the CWC because it interconnects global football. Think about it: whether you find yourself in Papua New Guinea, Congo-Kinshasa or Ecuador, your favorite club plays in the same competition as Manchester United, Barcelona and AC Milan, every year. In my case, there is nothing stopping FC Tampa Bay or Orlando City (closest professional teams to my hometown) from qualifying for the CCL through the US Open Cup, winning our Champions League and going on to face Real Madrid for a world title. Only world volleyball has a similar championship; and none of the biggest sports in the United States has anything like it.

The Club World Cup also has a considerable knock-on effect for continental club tournaments not named the UEFA Champions League and the Copa Libertadores. It is no accident that since the CWC was reinstated back in 2005, Mexican clubs have mercilessly dominated the region: the chance to reach the Mundial de clubes has given them much more incentive to go after the continental championship, whereas in the past Mexican teams hardly gave much attention or effort in CONCACAF play. The fact that it has been almost four years since a Mexican club was eliminated by a non-Mexican one tells you all you need to know about the seriousness with which they approach the CCL…once the CWC is in sight.

Monterrey earned the privilege this year, and their path towards international fame and glory will begin with a December 11 match against: TBD.

The tournament is set up in a ladder format, in which CF Barcelona (UEFA/Spain) and Santos (CONMEBOL/Brazil) await their competition in the semifinals, while Monterrey will only find out their quarterfinal opponent after the opening match between Auckland City (OFC/New Zealand) and the J-League champion (Host). And the latter spot is still very much in contention: as of right now, Gamba Osaka and Nagoya Grampus Eight are within three points of league leader Kashiwa Reysol with three matchdays to go.

While the lower part of the bracket is filled with uncertainty, Victor Manuel “King Midas” Vucetich’s side will breathe much easier once they look up at the road to the Club World Cup Final. The winner of their quarterfinal will take on Santos in the semifinals, while Al-Sadd (AFC/Qatar) and Espérance (CAF/Tunisia) will face off for the right to the best view in the house when an already-legendary Barcelona touch down in Japan in search of their second world championship. A game against the Catalans in the Club World Cup Final would instantly be the biggest match in Monterrey’s history; then again, given how they crashed and burned in the group stage of the 2010 Copa Libertadores, Monterrey will have to play to their full potential (which is impressive, with Cesar Delgado and Humberto Suazo leading the front line) in order to get past Santos.

And even their quarterfinal will be a difficult encounter, allowing them no time to relax once the opening whistle begins. It is true that the one time a Mexican club faced Oceanian opposition (in the 2009 CWC), Altlante brushed aside Auckland City 3-0 without breaking a sweat. But given the quality of the J-League, Monterrey will most likely start off with an unmistakable “away game.”

Japanese teams have only participated twice in the Club World Cup, since 2005. Their brief record, however, must inspire no small envy in Mexico: in 2007, the Urawa Red Diamonds knocked out Sepahan of Iran (the AFC’s rightful representative) in the quarterfinals, barely lost 1-0 to AC Milan in the semis and snatched third place on penalties. Then, in 2008, Gamba Osaka followed a similar path: they beat Adelaide United of Australia in the quarterfinals, lost 5-3 to Manchester United in an incredible semifinal and finished on a good note by overcoming Pachuca 1-0 for third place. Yes, Necaxa pulled it off back in 2000; but in the current format, Costa Rica’s Deportivo Saprissa is the only club from our corner of the world to have finished a CWC in third.

Of course, Monterrey’s primary goal will be to reach the Club World Cup Final. But right from the start, they will face an opponent with similar ambitions. Should Gamba Osaka return to the global stage, they will have an advantage in experience over the Mexicans; but whichever team wins the J-League will confidently chase a third Japanese appearance in the CWC semifinals in front of an ecstatic home crowd. And somehow, if Auckland City shock the world again and move on, they will have already proven that they are to be underestimated at dire cost. As Monterrey’s GM Luis Miguel Salvador knows very well, no one said this would be easy.

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