Tired, disappointed and cursing fate, Waitakere United captain, defender Danny Hay, cut a forlorn figure on Friday evening at the National Stadium in Tokyo. His team were 3-1 down to Sepahan and aware that they had missed their chance to advance to the quarter-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007.
The New Zealanders were very much the outsiders against Iran's top team but were hoping to cause an upset nevertheless. It only took four minutes for the dream to die, however, with Sepahan seizing on two lapses in concentration in the Waitakere defence to race into a 2-0 lead.
A mistake from goalkeeper Simon Eaddy extended the Iranians' lead at the start of the second half, putting the result beyond doubt. Hay and his men did not give up and scored a consolation goal, but that was a meagre reward for all their efforts.
"We made three stupid mistakes," said the skipper after the match, "and that's obviously a big disappointment." Hay was nevertheless looking on the bright side, as were his team-mates. The underdogs created a number of chances through sheer guts and effort and won over the fans in the stadium.
Learning from mistakes
"The Japanese fans were great. Particularly at the end when we were really pressing, it was almost like a home match for us. The spectators turned it into a real event and gave us some great support," said coach Chris Milicich, taking the positives from the defeat.
Neil Emblen, who was a permanent danger up front alongside Benjamin Totori, also saw the glass as half full. "It was the game of our lives and one we won't forget in a hurry. The atmosphere was great and we really enjoyed the tournament. All in all it was a great experience," said the English-born journeyman.
Hay has already played for his country, on no less a stage than at the FIFA Confederations Cup France 2003, but even he was overcome by a feeling of elation and pride half an hour after the final whistle. "It is a privilege to take part in a FIFA tournament. It was an incredible experience that we'll never forget. The support from the fans was particularly memorable."
The experience gained in Tokyo can only be beneficial to Waitakere United as they strive to progress even further. "We're a good side and we know now that we can compete with bigger teams, and that's something we have to remember. We need more matches at this level to make sure we constantly raise the bar," said Milicich, looking ahead with a mixture of anticipation and confidence.