The last few weeks have been a wildly erratic time for supporters of Urawa Red Diamonds, hauling the team's fans between the opposite poles of agony and ecstasy. First, the ecstasy, with the whole town overcome with joy after the Reds' AFC Champions League triumph in mid-November. It was a milestone success for the Japanese side, and not just because it was their first on the continental stage. Beyond establishing them as regional champions, it also opened the door to the FIFA Club World Cup 2007 on home soil.
But less than two weeks later, the club experienced a major setback when they surrendered their Japanese championship crown on the final day of the season. Beaten 1-0 at home by modest outfit Yokohama FC, Urawa handed first place and the title to rivals Kashima Antlers, despite having held a seven-point advantage after 30 rounds of matches. In the end, a catastrophic run of four games without a win (two draws and two losses) spelt disaster for their domestic dreams.
Their mood has also been hit by a serious injury to Brazilian Robson Ponte, who is set for a six-month spell on the sidelines after suffering a ligament tear. Despite that latest blow, however, Urawa go into the FIFA Club World Cup full of confidence and optimism, as FIFA.com discovered in an exclusive interview with the team's German coach Holger Osieck.
FIFA.com: How has your team reacted to losing its league
title on the last day of the season?
Osieck: We're obviously very disappointed, especially because we were so close to our goal. Unfortunately, our efforts in the Champions League cost us dear. We had to make do with an accumulation of minor injuries that deprived us of several starters, and in recent weeks I've hardly been able to field the same team twice. Tiredness and missing players handicapped us, especially going forward. In the end, our triumph on the continental stage had some unwelcome repercussions on our form.
Robson Ponte will be missing for a number of months. How
big a loss is he for your team and how do you intend to cover for
He's had some very good seasons for us. His presence and ability to score important goals have made him one of our top frontline players. I hope Shinji Ono, who is back in training after an operation, will be able to replace him.
Your team kick off their campaign with a rematch of the AFC
Champions League final. Will that game have an added importance for
you and your players?
The first match is always very important in any competition, because it allows the team to know where they stand. We know the Iranians very well as we've faced them twice already in the last few months. Sepahan have a very good team and tactically they're very well-organised. We have the advantage of knowing their strengths and we'll need to be prepared to deal with them.
What are your goals in this FIFA Club World Cup 2007?
To begin with, we want to reach the semi-finals. If we are lucky enough to play against AC Milan, our objective will be to cause the Italians difficulties. Some people think we even have what it takes to beat them. Personally, the thing I want most of all is to see my team play at a good level. I want people to say to themselves: "There's a team that plays good football!" The result is a different problem altogether.
What does this all mean for you and for Japanese football
This is the first time Japan will be represented in the competition, even though the country has been hosting it in one form or another for several years. Before, the competition was basically a duel between the champions of Europe and the champions of South America. Today we have a real tournament, which has made it possible for the Japanese to graduate from being mere organisers to becoming participants. This first appearance is therefore very exciting and not just for fans of Urawa: the whole country is excited. From our point of view, it's obviously a great honour to be the first Japanese representatives in this competition.
Your team will be playing at home. Could that make the
Our supporters are fantastic. The match will be in Nagoya, but I'm certain all our fans will travel to cheer us on and encourage us.