Though it may sound slightly contradictory, the FIFA Club World Cup is not merely about deciding the finest club side currently gracing the planet. For many of the players heading to Japan in a few days time the tournament is much more than that, offering a unique opportunity to showcase their skills and catch the eye of the giants of European football.
Fausto Pinto is one of the men with stars in his eyes. The Pachuca CF left-back is in the form of his life, having helped his side to five domestic and international trophies in the last 18 months and earned a regular place in the Mexico side. And as he tells FIFA.com, the trip to the Land of Rising Sun cannot come soon enough.
Do you remember the first time?
With his boyish appearance, Pintolooks a good deal younger than his 24 years. The fresh-faced defender is no stranger to the delights of Japan, though, having made his first trip there four years ago. "I went with the national team as part of our preparations for the U-20 World Cup [UAE 2003]," he says. "We stopped off in Sapporo. It's a very beautiful country, and things there are very different to what you see here in Mexico and across the Americas. I'm very excited about going back again.
"It's amazing. The people are so friendly and everything is completely different, like the parking spaces for bicycles in the shopping centres. They're almost as big as the ones for cars. There really is a lot to like about their culture. Some things really stand out and it's well worth going to see and explore the country."
Sightseeing in Japan apart, the trip proved to be an
unsuccessful one, the Mexicans failing to make an impression when
they arrived in the UAE for the tournament proper. Pinto scored his
side's equaliser in a draw with Saudi Arabia but that was as
good as it got for the young
Aztecas, defeats to Côte d'Ivoire and Republic of
Ireland consigning them to an early flight home.
Disappointments of that scale usually leave a mark on players, and most of the youngsters who appeared in that expedition have failed to make their way in the Mexican first division, some of them not even holding down places in the lower leagues. The kid from Culiacan proved an exception, however, and within a year of that morale-sapping experience, Pinto was already a first-team regular with Los Tuzos.
In the three years since then he has tasted league glory, helped
his team become CONCACAF champions and pulled on the green jersey
of Mexico, an upward curve that his one-time team-mates in the U-20
national side have been unable to follow. As Pinto acknowledges,
the confidence his club have invested in him has played a large
part in his coming of age. "I'm very grateful to be with a
club like Pachuca. They're always trying to innovate and do new
things, although standards are naturally very high."
And now, four years on from his first visit, the boy who was left open-mouthed by Japanese culture and everyday life has another opportunity to savour what the country has to offer. Rather than a dress rehearsal, though, Pinto will be taking part in the biggest challenge his club has ever faced.
"It's true there's nothing like playing for your national side," he comments. "Representing your country is the biggest thing a player can aspire to. At the same time, though, I want the best for the club, for me personally and for all the fans who give us their support. It's going to be very motivating to play in the Club World Cup because we're also representing Mexico."
"You're going to be facing the best teams in the world and, as you might expect, the demands are very great," says Pinto before showing his awareness of the career opportunities the Japanese showpiece can generate. "We know that if we do things well and work hard, it's a great chance for us to fulfil the dreams many of us have and play in Europe."
"Playing over there is what I'm working towards," he continues. "I don't know if I'll ever have the chance but it's a dream of mine and I'd love to give it a go and be successful."
Time to believe
Putting the potential boost the FIFA Club World Cup may give to his career to one side, Pinto believes Los Tuzos have what it takes to top Necaxa's third place in the inaugural tournament.
"I think we've got a great squad, a great team, and if we play well we can achieve big things. There's no point in going if we don't believe we can be champions. We're going to try and get things right against our opponents and come home with a trophy that's hugely important for all of us."
If they are to pull it off, Pinto and his cohorts will certainly need to pick up their form. After two triumphant seasons at home and abroad, the men from Bella Airosa have been struggling of late, slumping to a 6-0 aggregate defeat to Cruz Azul in an eliminator for the Apertura championship play-offs last weekend.
With Japan just around the corner, there is no better time for Pachuca to rediscover their self-belief and reverse the slump, something the young international is confident they can achieve.
"I'm hopeful we can give a good account of ourselves. When the team's on form and playing well we're very difficult opponents. We play good football, create a lot of chances and knock the ball around. We're determined to come back with the title, I can tell you."