Auckland City midfielder Mario Bilen was in for something of a shock after helping his side reach the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014 on Saturday. As he and his jubilant team-mates celebrated the semi-professional team’s surprise 1-0 defeat of African champions ES Setif with songs, hugs and a tear or two, the Croatian checked his phone and saw the following message: “Great game. You’re sacked. Signed: your boss.”
Most of the Auckland players supplement their income with part-time jobs outside football, among them Bilen, who could have been excused for fearing for his. Happily for him, the text was just a joke played on him by his giggling team-mates.
“Bilen works in the construction industry and we’re all going to have to stay on here more time than we expected,” said Auckland’s Argentinian forward Emiliano Tade, fighting back the laughter.
“We’ve been coming here as dark horses for years, so you can imagine how much of a dream this is for us,” he added, expressing his surprise at just how long their Moroccan adventure is turning out to be.
“It’s really incredible. We’re in heaven,” said English defender John Irving, who scored the only goal of the game against the Algerians and picked up the man of the match award. “Winning our first game (against Moghreb Tetouan) was the greatest day of our lives, but today we were on another level and it’s hard to explain the feeling. We never thought we’d end up among the four best sides here. We’re all very proud.”
Naturally, the team’s unlikely exploits in Morocco are being followed closely by fans and family back home in New Zealand.
“The support we’re getting is amazing, with a lot of people sending messages and saying lovely things to us,” explained the former Everton man, who contemplated what the immediate future might hold for the Kiwi underdogs: “I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on it but I guess there’ll be a big party for us when we get back. We need to make the most of everything that’s happening.”
Mixing it with the big boys
For now, though, it is time to enjoy the moment, one that Auckland City are far from accustomed to in the Club World Cup. The New Zealanders have made five previous appearances in the competition, falling at the first hurdle on four occasions and only clearing it once, in 2009, when they eventually finished fifth. Their overall record read two wins in five years, a tally they have doubled in the last four days.
Aside from their record in the competition, one thing that is also different about Auckland at Morocco 2014 is the make-up of the team, as Irving explained: “We’ve got a young side that’s full of energy and very fit. We never stop running and we’re always looking to win.”
The 25-year-old Englishman is a good example of that. Having now spent two years with the Navy Blues, he is putting past disappointments and the failure to make the grade at his beloved Everton behind him: “It was my dream to play for them. I joined the club at an early age but I never got a game for the first team.”
Irving and his team-mates will have a chance to raise their profile even higher when they take on Copa Libertadores champions San Lorenzo in the semi-finals on Wednesday.
Having never imagined they would go this far, the Auckland coaching staff will be working overtime in the next couple of days trying to find out all they can about the Argentinian outfit.
“I’ve got no idea how they play,” admitted Irving. “All I know is that they’re on another level. We’re going to celebrate for now, have a rest, and then start thinking about how we’re going to take them on. Who knows what might happen?”
Time will tell if the Argentinians will bring Irving and his colleagues back down to earth. For now, though, the intrepid New Zealanders are happy to live the dream, as are the fans supporting them on this amazing journey and the players’ bosses back home, who are no doubt only too happy to give them a few days’ extra leave.
“We’re making history,” said Irving, summing up their achievements of the last few days. “I think we can say that this is the best team Auckland City have ever had.”