- Liam Graham arrives in UAE armed with local knowledge
- Auckland City defender believes Navy Blues can cause a stir at Club World Cup
- Return from knee injury has New Zealand international raring to go
While you may expect the Middle East to be outside the comfort zone of Auckland City’s contingent, there are fewer mysteries to the United Arab Emirates for Navy Blues and New Zealand international defender Liam Graham than you would think.
Ever since Graham's parents relocated to the UAE from Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, the 25-year-old has spent much of his time in the off-season living in Dubai. As well as adoring the culture and cuisine, knows a thing or two about its football as well.
"My parents were living in Japan, but they thought it would be better to leave and move to Dubai,” Graham explained. “I've been in the UAE every summer during that time and I love being here.
"A lot of the food is quite similar in this part of the world and I love the food in the UAE. I could easily move to this country and eat the food for the rest of my life without any worries.
"I've looked at playing professional football in the UAE at various stages of my career, and if the right moment came along, I would love the opportunity to get a look in at a club here. The football has grown a lot and I keep an eye on the local clubs and league," he said.
Graham and his Navy Blues team-mates got a close-up look at what could be in store for them when they face Al Jazira after a friendly against Al Ittihad Kalba. A 0-0 stalemate ensued, but Graham believes there were clues as to what Auckland City can expect this Wednesday 6 December.
"In fleeting moments as a player, you daydream of playing in big games, and for us, that begins with the first game. Football in the UAE can be unpredictable, full of pace and very, very fast. I think we can expect that from Al Jazira.
"We want to stay for longer than we did during the previous two editions and maybe play another Japanese team after what happened in last year's loss. The Club World Cup will be a special experience because I've missed out on a few FIFA events like the U-20 World Cup and Confederations Cup.”
The closest Graham has come before was representing the All Whites in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, but the Melbourne-born defender has seen opportunities to build on his four caps limited by frustrating hurdles, with his hopes of helping them to Russia 2018 being dashed.
"The injury was a major setback,” he admitted, “but I managed to see through the crack in the door to what could be and that’s hopefully going to keep me going. Injuries give you a big knock, but it’s all relative.
"For a footballer, an injury is a setback, but for a worker, it may be the equivalent of being laid off when you don't expect it. It gives you a different perspective on life, and right now, football is still very important to me," he said.
Shake up in store?
After getting his big break with Italian Serie B side Vicenza in 2010, Graham spent five years in Italian football before relocating to Chesterfield in England's League One. It was then a knee injury while on international duty that saw him sidelined for an extended period. However, Auckland City came calling with an offer of getting Graham back in the international spotlight at the FIFA Club World Cup in the UAE.
"Auckland City FC deserves a lot of credit as an amateur team and what they've achieved on the global stage,” commended the Navy Blues No2. “Everybody works hard on and off the pitch, which is why we've been so successful.
“All of the players want to give the club another proud moment in this competition. Everyone believes in each other and that we have a squad capable of shaking up the Club World Cup.”
Tomorrow the #ClubWC kicks off!@AucklandCity_FC take on hosts @AlJazira_uae in the curtain-raiser as @realmadriden will aim to become the first side in history to retain the title! pic.twitter.com/kxjFJAn3Gb
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) December 5, 2017