Simply taking part at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 rates as the greatest triumph in the history of Auckland City FC. The amateurs from the north of New Zealand have enjoyed a unique opportunity to test their skills against the best club teams on the planet.
In the opening contest, the Kiwis proved a match for African Champions League winners Al Ahly Sporting Club for a good 50 minutes, before Portuguese star Flavio struck the opener. Despite an eventual 2-0 reverse, the men from Auckland earned praise for a courageous display against one of the best teams in Africa.
The Oceania men, the majority of whom hold down day jobs and can only train after work, now meet Korea Republic's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the fifth place play-off. The mobile and pacy Asians go into the meeting with the side from the South Seas as overwhelming favourites, especially after an eminently unlucky 1-0 defeat to Mexican outfit Club America. "If we'd made more of our chances, it would definitely have been a different result," coach Choi Kang Hee reflected afterwards.
Once they take to the turf at the Tokyo National Stadium, the New Zealanders are determined not to let the Koreans simply have everything their own way. "We're going to run like we've never run before," skipper Neil Sykes declared, and that is a quality he and his team-mates will unquestionably need. The quick, versatile Koreans waste no time at all getting men forward in numbers, as they frequently demonstrated against Club America.
The Asians will certainly push coach Allan Jones' men to their physical limits. Sykes believes the Koreans' superior stamina could prove a telling factor the longer the game goes on. "Professionals don't fade. They do the same things over and over again, for a full 90 minutes," he commented.
One common factor for the teams on Friday evening is the chance to gain further experience at a high-level international tournament. The main beneficiaries could be Jeonbuk Motors' numerous younger players, as Coach Choi Kang Hee intends to hand a clutch of youngsters the chance to prove themselves on the big stage against Auckland, gaining the know-how which could prove valuable later in their careers. "You need plenty of experience to become a good player, but at the moment we have a lot of young players who have yet to gain experience in major tournaments," Choi explained.
The Koreans approach the encounter with the Oceania outfit eager to make good a sin of omission from the meeting with Club America, namely putting the ball in the net. "We lost because we failed to score," lamented Kim Hyeung Bum, overcoming his disappointment and looking to the future for solace. "I've learnt a lot personally. We're in the AFC Champions League again next season, and with a bit of luck, we might appear at the Club World Cup a second time," he remarked.
That is a goal shared by Auckland City, equally keen to return to Japan in 2007 as Oceania champions. "We've found out what it means to come here, and we've had a taste of the atmosphere and the crowds." Auckland's home ground has a capacity of just 3,800, but the meeting with Al Ahly drew close to 30,000 spectators.
That is the kind of atmosphere the players from Auckland and their Jeonbuk counterparts are looking forward to sampling one more time on Friday evening.