Waitakere United's debut FIFA Club World Cup campaign was not without its disappointments. Going two goals down within four minutes of kicking off against Sepahan certainly didn't make for the best start, and the individual mistakes that gifted the Iranians a 3-1 win left an enduring sour taste.
For Waitakere, however, the experience of Japan 2007 proved as sweet as it was short, and it left everyone at the West Auckland club craving more. Coach Chris Milicich summed up this desire when he said: "We need more matches at this level to make sure we constantly raise the bar."
Fast forward just five months and New Zealand's top club have secured that second crack at the big time, this after retaining Oceania's continental laurels in an intriguing two-legged battle with Kossa FC of the Solomon Islands. The Kiwis went into the final firm favourites to hold on to their O-League crown, but it was far from plain sailing against a team of technically gifted players, some of whom with prior experience of starring at FIFA finals.
The fact that these finals were in Rio de Janeiro at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup did not detract from the fact that, in James Naka, one of the undisputed stars of that tournament, Kossa possessed a national talisman who had already terrorised defences throughout the club's unlikely journey to the OFC final. With four other members of the Solomon Islands' Rio 2007 squad alongside him, Naka certainly gave Waitakere an uncomfortable afternoon in the first leg in Honiara.
Cheered on by a partisan, 20,000-strong crowd in soaring mid-afternoon temperatures, Kossa dominated on home soil, emerging with a 3-1 win secured by Naka's solitary strike and a double from another of the club's beach contingent, Joe Luwi. Milich later admitted the atmosphere had affected his players. He said: "A lot of Kiwi fans don't realise that when our teams play in the islands it's a true away game - 20,000 people dead silent when your team does something but a roar of absolute noise if it's their team."
Dead balls kill off Kossa
In an attempt to replicate the hostile reception they had received in the Solomons, Waitakere took the laudable step of offering free entry in an attempt to draw a sizeable crowd to the return at Trusts Stadium. In the event, 3,000 turned out in the rain for a match which witnessed the conditions once again play their part, with Kossa's players initially struggling to keep their feet on the slippery surface.
Inside eight minutes, the visitors fell behind to a Benjamin Totori opener that set the pattern for a first half dominated by their powerful, athletic hosts. Kossa's inability to compete with the Kiwis at dead ball situations was to prove telling when Neil Sykes' corner was glanced in by Chris Bale on 25 minutes, and while the Solomons' hopefuls rallied to start the second half brightly, they fell behind on aggregate for the first time in the tie when Allan Pearce headed home another Sykes' set piece to to make it 3-0 with 18 minutes remaining.
Two further goals in the final 12 minutes from Pearce and Jake Butler put the outcome beyond doubt and left a delighted Milicich to reflect on a job well done. "We did what we planned to do," he said. "Our shape, structure and strategy were all designed to put pressure on Kossa across the board and that's what we did. We knew that if we just played the goals would come."
Hay plays through the pain
While Kossa coach Jacob Moli reflected graciously on "a great ride" for his side en route to the final, Milicich began looking forward to another Japanese adventure. "The whole focus now is on Japan - and doing better than the last time," he said. "We're going to turn up and be as well prepared as we can with the best team we can find and try and do the job."
They will, of course, once again travel to the global showpiece as rank outsiders, but if the example of captain Danny Hay is anything to go by, Waitakere certainly won't be found lacking in spirit. Diagnosed with a fracture to his ankle six days prior to Sunday's kick-off, the Kiwi club's skipper put himself through, in his own words, "I don't know how many injections" to ensure that he was passed fit an hour before kick-off.
Hay was withdrawn with 30 minutes remaining but returned to the field to lift the trophy at the end, and with Milicich possessing players of such grit and determination within his ranks, the Waitakere coach has every right to believe his side can do their continent proud when they return to the world stage.