Before I get into the meat of this piece just some final words on Saturday. I was a bit surprised in general that Barça didn’t get more credit from the international press. I hope everyone recognizes what an absolutely sublime total performance that was. Not only should we praise superb individual displays, but it was as efficient a team performance as we’ve ever seen, as well as Pep Guardiola showing everyone he has a lot of tactical nuance and the 3-4-3 can be a dangerous alternartive. I have watched it thrice and the real point of pride was how the team never got rattled or surrendered to the pressure, but rather looked completely focused and certain that the Barça philosophy wouldn’t let them down. I regard it as a rather special night.
But onwards we go. Directly after the game, the team was escorted by local police to Barajas airport to board a plane (with nearly one brunette female too many!) for Japan in order to compete in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup. This is the 8th installment of the tournament that began in 2000, but then did not run again until 2005. The gap was a result of bickering between UEFA and FIFA over the former’s Intercontinental Cup and the latter’s Club World Cup. Finally, the competitions merged and this format is set to stay. This will be the 5th occasion Japan host the tournament, after the last 2 years were in the United Arab Emirates, and the inaugural games began in Brazil.
The competition is composed of 7 teams. The first 6 are the world’s “best” 6 clubs, determined by winning a respective “Champions League” in each one of the member FIFA bodies: AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North/Central America & Carribean), CONMEBOL (South America), OFC (Oceania), and UEFA (Europe). The final participating club is the latest winner of the host nation’s top domestic league. This year’s participants are Al-Sadd Sports Club (Qatar/Asia), Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Tunisia/Africa), Club de Futbol Monterrey (Mexico/CONCACAF), Santos Futebol Clube (Brazil/South America), Auckland City FC (Austrialia/Oceania), FC Barcelona (Spain/UEFA), and Kashiwa Reysol (Japan/Host).
The tournament is a total of 8 matches (2 being the 5th place and 3rd place playoff). To date 3 have already been played. In the first match, the play-off for the quarter-final, host club Kashiwa Reysol defeated Auckland City 2-0. The two quarter finals were on Sunday, and to the home fans’ delight Kashiwa advanced to the semifinal by defeating Mexican side Monterrey 4-3 on penalties after finishing 1:1. In the other match, Asian champions Al-Sadd emerged 2-1 victors against African champions Espérance.
Our first match will be Thursday at 19:30 Japan time (check your local listings not to miss it) against Al-Sadd, while the day before Santos take on Kashiwa. As you may have figured out already, the strength of your FIFA region determines your path. The host nation, as they haven’t won a “Champions League” need to earn their spot in the main tournament by taking on the weakest FIFA region, being Oceania. Then, the next 3 weakest (CONCACAF, Africa, and Asia) battle it out in the quarter-final, and finally the two strongest (Europe and South America) quality directly to the semi-final, each on opposite sides of the draw so that we may end up with Europe vs South America in the final just like the former, more simple Intercontinental Cup was.
Pep is by no means taking this tournament lightly. Reports are that he told the team quite clearly “you will not be the best club in the world until you win this trophy”. He wants his squad of 23 to seize this rare opportunity and just make it another part of this team’s legendary history. To gauge the merit Pep see’s in this trophy, look no further than Pep’s tears of joy and pride when we won this tournament last season. Obviously he wasn’t overjoyed to win just that evening, but to him it symbolized the body of work that allowed this team to arrive at that moment and for once emotional truly overwhelmed him. It’s one of my favorite moments of these wonderful years.
It is Barça’s 3rd appearance in the this tournament, having won in 2009 and then lost in the 2006 final versus Internacional. Seeing as the club organized quite cleverly to play Rayo early and we have no more matches to worry about until the 7th/8th of January 2012, there is no reason to not take our record to 2 for 3. In December 2009 (right about when I was totally fed up with Ibrahimovic) we kind of struggled to victory, particularly in the final. It was far from a memorable performance for 89 minutes, but then Pedro saved us with a header to take it into extra time, which we eventually won with an unforgettable Messi goal that looked as if he scored with his heart. That made it a record setting perfect 6 for 6 trophies in Pep’s first 1.5 years, and we haven’t slowed down much since.
Hope that wet’s everyone’s appetite for the next week in Japan. I rather want to win this tournament, and I think the team do also. We come into it with good form, which was less true in 2009, and without trying to be arrogant, this is our tournament to lose.
Full 23 man squad:
Víctor Valdés, Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas, Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, David Villa, Andrés Iniesta, Alexis Sánchez, Leo Messi, Thiago Alcántara, José Manuel Pinto, Javier Mascherano, Seydou Keita, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez, Jonathan dos Santos, Maxwell, Adriano, Éric Abidal, Andreu Fontàs, Oier Olazábal Isaac Cuenca.