Statistics may not win matches but they can certainly play their part in the psychological battle. One stat Boca Juniors will be hoping to use to their advantage when they step out at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007 is Hugo Ibarra's incredible record in finals. The Xeneize talisman has played in eight in the distinctive blue and gold jersey and has been on the winning side every time.
"How do you explain it? Well, there's a bit of good fortune for sure, but you need to work hard to be lucky," the man himself explains to FIFA.com. "I do my bit as part of the team, and you have to remember a lot of teamwork goes into winning tournaments. Football's getting more and more competitive all the time and if you don't work hard and have a good unit, then you've got no chance of reaching finals. Fortunately, those are things Boca have had for years now."
A born winner
A native of El Colorado in the province of Formosa, the 33-year-old started his professional career with Colon of Santa Fe in the Argentinian second division. In 1995 he helped his team earn promotion to the top flight where he quickly acquired a reputation as "the most Brazilian of Argentinian full-backs".
It was an apt description. Despite his relatively slender build, Ibarra regularly demonstrated the very same qualities that have today made him one of the most outstanding performers in his position. A tight marker, comfortable on the ball and adept at getting forward at the right time, these were the qualities that prompted Boca to sign him in 1998.
In the first of his three spells at the Bombonera he helped the club to three league championships, two Copa Libertadores (2000 and 2001) and the Intercontinental Cup in 2000. His displays caught the eye of Portuguese powerhouses FC Porto, who invested nearly eight million euros in him in the middle of 2001. Denied Ibarra's services for the Intercontinental Cup match with Germany's Bayern Munich that same year, Boca duly lost.
By early 2003 the wanderer had returned on loan to his old stomping ground and promptly picked up his third Copa Libertadores winners medal. Within a matter of months, however, he crossed the Atlantic again to turn out for Monaco in France before moving on to La Liga outfit Espanyol. In 2005 he was back in blue and gold once more and has stayed put ever since, raking in yet more silverware in the shape of two further league titles, two Copa Sudamericanas, two Recopa Sudamericanas and a fourth Libertadores crown in 2007.
Sights set on Japan
"I left on a high and I went to Europe to win more trophies," says Ibarra when asked about his reasons for leaving Boca not once but twice. "Luckily I performed well and had the chance to play in a Champions League final [he was a member of the Monaco side that lost to Porto in 2004]. But then I felt the need to come back and experience everything Argentinian football has to offer."
In a long career stretching back 14 years, the veteran defender was called up for international duty at the 1997 and 2007 Copa Americas and has already featured in the squad for the South Africa 2010 qualifying matches. With that kind of experience and his intimate knowledge of the European scene, Ibarra is better placed than most to analyse the reasons behind South America's continued success in the FIFA Club World Cup. "It's just one of those things. I don't think it's because the European sides don't take it as seriously. Both the clubs and the fans want to win it and I'm sure they don't like losing out and seeing their opponents take the trophy."
With the big kick-off just a couple of days away, the versatile full-back is guarding against complacency. "Everyone is expecting a Boca-Milan final and I suppose the Italians are too. I'm sure they'll want to get revenge for losing in 2003. We're up for the challenge of playing one of Europe's biggest teams but we've got another game to play first, and no matter who we come up against we need to be very focused to win it."
Even so, Ibarra is at ease with the fact most people have Boca down as one of the favourites. "The club knows how to win tournaments like this. It's all about selecting the right coaches, finding the right players and having good leaders in the side. It's natural that people see us as favourites but we need to keep our feet on the ground. I just hope the trophies keep on coming and we can win the title in Japan."