After three long months of dreams and anticipation, the moment of truth is almost here for Brazil's Internacional as they enter the final phase of their preparations for the the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006. No detail, no matter how small, is being overlooked, with the Porto Alegre outfit already training with the tournament's official match ball and taking expert advice on how to adapt to the vastly different environment that is the Far East.
With rivals Sao Paulo securing this season's Brasileiro last weekend, Abel Braga's men can now focus entirely on the upcoming tournament in Japan, where in just 19 days time they will face the winners of Egypt's Al Ahly and New Zealand's Auckland City at Tokyo's National Stadium.
Disappointing though it was to lose out in the championship race, its conclusion means all eyes are now firmly on Japan, as Braga explained: "Obviously, we wanted to win the league, but with just two rounds left to play (and the title decided), I can tell you that we're only thinking about the Club World Cup."
The club have left no stone unturned in their preparations for December's assault on the FIFA Club World Cup, just as Braga promised in a recent interview with FIFA.com. And it is just as well too, as Inter will be swapping the balmy heat of a Porto Alegre summer for the near-freezing temperatures of the Japanese winter, with all the challenges - time zone changes, cultural adaptation, new eating habits - that this entails. "Sao Paulo took similar steps to deal with these things last year, and it worked for them. Hopefully we can do the same," the coach remarked.
Attention to detail
As part of his team's preparations for Japan, Braga has not only been holding evening training sessions and using the tournament's official match ball, he also arranged for his team to have an audience with Wagner Lopes, the Brazilian-born Japanese international who starred for the Asians at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ in France.
"I tried to explain a few concepts to the players to help them adapt more quickly to Japanese customs," said Lopes. And what was his main advice? "I told them to make sure they maintained a cordial relationship with the country's media so as to win the hearts of the public, and also that the locals will naturally feel some affinity to them given that their team colours, red and white, are also those of the Japanese flag."
However, it is not just the squad who have been brushing up on Japanese culture and traditions. Club officials, with the help of the Japanese consulate and various tourist agencies, have organised an information evening for those Colorado fans planning to travel to the event. The important role the supporters will play was highlighted recently by captain Fernandao, who said: "The support of our fans will be crucial. We know we won't have all those fans who roar us on at the Beira-Rio, but rest assured, we'll feel their hearts beating for us from the other side of the world."
Anyone who saw the Inter side that swept all before them at this year's Copa Libertadores will know that the current squad has a different look about it. The subsequent departures of Jorge Wagner, Rafael Sobis, Tinga and Bolivar have undoubtedly been a loss, but the arrival of players like the Peruvian Martin Hidalgo and Colombia's Fabian Vargas have done much to restore the team's shape.
So what can we expect from the Colorados in Japan? "We'll be a tough side to beat," warned Braga. "Here it's not about a couple of star players, it's the team that makes the difference," added veteran goalkeeper Clemer . "We simply can't wait to play in Japan. It will be like nothing the club has ever experienced before," said Pedro Iarley , a member of Boca Juniors' Toyota/Intercontinental Cup-winning side of 2003.
With their captain Fernandao leading by example in attack, the Inter squad are preparing for what will be the biggest challenge of their careers. The possibility of meeting Barcelona in the final has everyone at the club dreaming, as their captain told FIFA.com: "We come from a poor country, where there isn't much money in either football or in society in general. That's why testing ourselves against a wealthy European outfit, who have some of the finest players in the world, is a fantastic challenge. We'll be relying on a dose of unique Brazilian pride to help us succeed."