The name Al-Ittihad may not quite have the same cachet as Liverpool or Sao Paulo, but one thing is for sure: when the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 kicks off on 11th December in Japan, Asia will be well represented by the Saudis.
Twice champions of their continental zone, Al-Ittihad are looking beyond their need for an opening-match win against their Egyptian neighbours Al-Ahly. Indeed, when the trophy was displayed for the benefit of the local media yesterday, there was even talk of the trophy returning to the Kingdom on a permanent basis!
"It would be a mistake to think we're visiting Japan just to make up the numbers," underlined their Sierra Leone striker and star player Mohammed Kallon. "We've got a specific target in mind and strongly believe we're capable of coming back to Jeddah with a certain item in our hands…"
Winning the Arab "derby"
Kallon's cohorts, like the attacking midfielder Mohammed Noor, are all singing from the same hymn sheet: "We could well be the surprise team of the tournament! Our first match against Al-Ahly will be key to deciding whether or not we do well. The fact that we're playing another Arab team - albeit one from the African Zone - and one we happen to know quite well, will put added pressure on our shoulders. But there'll be even more on Al-Ahly, as we've had by far the better of our encounters over recent years (editor's note: four wins in as many games)." For the Saudis and the Egyptians, the match amounts to a derby, as the cities of Jeddah and Cairo are only two hours apart by plane.
His striking partner for the yellow and blacks, Idriss Hamzah, is similarly bullish: "the winner of this duel between us and the Egyptians will automatically be proclaimed the best team in Asia… and Africa! It's a massive challenge, but Al-Ittihad supplies over half the national side and is capable not only of overcoming this first hurdle but also seeing off Sao Paulo in the semi-final and then lifting the FIFA Club World Championship."
So are the Saudis getting swept away with excitement, or could they really be cooking up a big surprise for their opponents? Judging by the quality of the Al-Ittihad club's infrastructure, the pedigree of a squad packed with seasoned Saudi internationals plus a smattering of impressive foreign imports (apart from Kallon, their ranks include the Cameroonian Joseph-Desire Job and a quartet of Brazilians), not to mention their national and continental dominance, Ittihad do not appear to be living in cloud-cuckoo land. When the final of the tournament takes place on 18th December, they intend to have their feet firmly on the ground in Yokohama.