It was billed as the champion of champions tournament. The six confederation winners met in Japan for the right to be called the best on the planet. And the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 lived up to the hype, proving to be a largely even contest and a knockout for fans. At the end of the final bout, Sao Paulo showed the South American chin to be as strong as ever, taking repeated blows before emerging victorious after a 1-0 defeat of European heavyweights Liverpool.
Mineiro's 27th-minute strike was enough to hand the Brazilians the title in an enthralling encounter in front of almost 67,000 fans at the Yokohama International stadium. But the side coached by Paulo Autuori were made to fight as Liverpool came and kept coming determined to bag the only crown still to decorate their glorious history. The English side, laced with foreign stars and spearheaded by Spanish duo Fernando Morientes and Luis Garcia, saw chance after chance go begging with goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni inspirational for a club fondly remembered by the Japanese public.
In this edition of the tournament, the six continental kings qualified for the new tournament, designed so the African, Asian, Oceanian and North, Central American and Caribbean champions clashed immediately in the quarter-finals.
First up, was the eagerly awaited Arab derby between Al Ahly of Egypt and Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. The Africans, coached by Portuguese Manuel Jose, went into the game on the back of a record 55-match unbeaten run but it was the double Asian champions, guided by the wily Romanian Anghel Iordanescu, who struck the killer blow as captain Mohammed Noor profited from a goalkeeping error on a bitterly cold night in Tokyo.
The other quarter-final, played in the wonderful Toyota City stadium, appeared to be a less evenly matched contest. Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa, with 23 domestic titles to their name, versus Sydney FC, barely a year old. But the Australian side, bossed by former Germany winger Pierre Littbarski and including Japanese legend Kazu Miura and Tobagan and former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke, gave as good as they got. A fine Christian Bolanos goal just after half-time was all that separated the sides.
The competition was bubbling up nicely as the big two entered the fray.
There had been much talk and many clips of the dead ball skills of Sao Paulo's goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni ahead of the semi-final against Ittihad. And the experienced player grabbed what would prove to be the winner in a match much closer than the Brazilians had dared to imagine. Once the world's most expensive transfer, veteran striker Amoroso gave the Paulista the lead but Noor equalised soon after. Amoroso and Ceni, from the penalty spot, struck early in the second half but the Saudi side refused to lie down and a header from Asian Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari had Autuori and co. sweating right until the final whistle.
Liverpool had arrived a few days before and showed no signs of jet-lag as they breezed past Saprissa in the other semi-final. Tough to deal with, goals from two-metre-tall Peter Crouch began and ended a tasty victory sandwiched by a delicious Steven Gerrard volley in the only one-sided match of the tournament.
Sydney, somewhat surprisingly, grabbed fifth place as goals from Yorke and David Carney cancelled out an Emad Motab effort for a disappointing Ahly, while a last-gasp bludgeoning left-foot free kick from Ronald Gomez gave Saprissa third after a ding-dong battle with the impressive Ittihad. Mohamed Kallon and Joseph Desire-Job had put the Asians ahead after an early goal from Alvaro Saborio, with the same player equalising from the spot with five minutes left.
But the main event was, as many had expected, a confrontation between South America and Europe. The stage was set, thousands packed the Yokohama arena with both sides bringing plenty of vocal support. In the Toyota Cup and its predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, clubs from South America had a very slight edge in head-to-head duels but, with the extra days to acclimatise and an incredible run of 11 matches without conceding, Rafa Benitez's European champions kicked off the final as favourites.
Thankfully, football's continued popularity revolves around its unpredictability, something this tournament is all about encouraging, and despite being pressed back for large periods by the star-studded Anfield outfit, it finished a day for the underdogs as Sao Paulo, Brazil and South America held on for another success.
Captain, goalkeeper and, yes, goalscorer, Rogerio Ceni has grabbed his fair share of fame back home thanks to his right-footed free kicks. In the semi-final his penalty made him the first goalkeeper to get on the tournament's scoresheet, but it was with his hands, elastic body and unflappable character that contributed most to his adidas Golden ball and TOYOTA awards. Perhaps the pick of his many saves came just after half-time of the final when the keeper threw himself high to his left to keep out a stunning 25-yard free kick from Gerrard.
The Liverpool captain, whose goal in the semi-final, was arguably the pick of the lot, was outstanding throughout, driving his team forward and ending up with the adidas Silver ball. Third prize, the adidas Bronze ball, went to Costa Rican midfielder Bolanos, whose technical ability, big match mentality and eye for goal should be on show at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
Al Ittihad 1-0 Al Ahly
Sydney FC 0-1 Deportivo Saprissa
Al ittihad 2-3 Sao Paulo
Deportivo Saprissa 0-3 Liverpool
Al Ahly 1-2 Sydney FC
Al Ittihad 2-3 Deportivo Saprissa
Sao Paulo 1-0 Liverpool
National stadium (Tokyo), Toyota stadium (Toyota), International stadium (Yokohama)
No. of goals: 19 (average/game: 2.71)
2 goals: Peter Crouch (Liverpool), Amoroso (Sao Paulo), Mohammed Noor (Al Ittihad), Alvaro Saborio (Deportivo Saprissa)