Few players can lay claim to debuting for Barcelona in midfield alongside a certain Lionel Messi, then later have the chance to face the Spanish and European champions on the world stage.
However, Auckland City FC’s FIFA Club World Cup campaign this December will provide just such an opportunity for their Spanish playmaker, Manel Exposito. For the 29-year-old, a four-year stint at the Camp Nou was highlighted by a first senior team start in a friendly against Porto, a match in which Messi also made his Barça debut. Now Exposito is facing the prospect of being on the same pitch as the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or winner once again, although this time wearing the blue of Auckland City.
The former Cerro Reyes midfielder is leading a small coterie of Spaniards turning out in the unlikely setting of Auckland. Young team-mates Angel Berlanga and Albert Riera Vidal, as well as Auckland City's co-coach Ramon Tribulietx, who brought Exposito Down Under, make up a quartet of Spaniards at the club.
Auckland and city rivals Waitakere United are New Zealand’s most successful clubs in the modern era by a distance. The pair have won all seven championships since the national league, the New Zealand Football Championship, was relaunched. It is a similar story at continental level, where the pair have shared four of the five OFC O-League crowns, and it was last April’s success against Vanuatu’s Amicale that catapulted Auckland, and Exposito, into an improbable scenario.
The Oceania champions must first see off the J.League representatives in the competition's play-off if they are to win through to the latter stages and a possible meeting with the Spanish glamour side or any of the other qualified clubs thus far: Brazil’s Santos and Mexico’s Monterrey. But when did it dawn on Exposito that a “dream” meeting against the Blaugrana was possible? “When I scored the goal in the (O-League) final and I knew we would be champions, I actually started to think about it then during the game,” Exposito told FIFA.com.
“I know it will be very difficult because we have to win against a Japan team and then further matches. Barça is the best team in the world and who wouldn’t want to play against them. To be honest I never thought this could be possible and it would certainly be a dream.”
Come December, it will be just on eight years since Exposito shared the field with Messi, as well as the likes of Bojan Krkic and Giovani Dos Santos in the club’s second team. Exposito, who was unable to crack through the galaxy of stars which makes up the senior team at the Nou Camp, recalls with fondness the genius of the then 16-year-old Argentinian. “Messi was very young, but he was brilliant even then,” Exposito said. “We tried to give him the ball all the time, and of course he would score many goals.”
A foot injury kept Exposito out of Barcelona action for over a year, while an indifferent experience at third tier club Cerro Reyes led Exposito to seek new horizons. The perfect opportunity came knocking when former coach Tribulietx, by now long settled in New Zealand, suggested that the man nicknamed Xino take his football journey down a completely different path.
It is a world away in every sense from the bright lights of Spanish football, but Exposito is enjoying the experience. In less than a year, he has learnt English, discovered the pleasures of life in New Zealand’s largest city and experienced the distinctiveness of football in the Pacific Islands.
“Coming to New Zealand was something new, a new country to enjoy and a new style of football,” said Exposito. “Auckland is a very nice place to live and everyone is friendly. It is like a big city and yet like a village in other ways, and of course so very different from Barcelona. Playing in the O-League has been a unique and amazing experience. Some of the island nations are poor but they are very passionate for the game.”
This year’s FIFA Club World Cup will be Auckland City’s third participation following Japan 2006 and UAE 2009. Remarkably, on each occasion Barcelona have also qualified for the showpiece tournament. Five years ago the Kiwis fell at the first hurdle against Egypt’s Al Ahly, but it was a different story last time around in the United Arab Emirates. An opening win against local representatives Al Ahli was followed by a victory over African champions TP Mazembe Englebert, as the Oceania side clinched a credible fifth-place finish.
Incremental progress has been made over the past two tournaments, but what do Exposito and his fellow team-mates hope to achieve in 2011? “Initially we have to put all our ambitions into the opener,” said Exposito. “It’s very important for the club, the city and all the players to play against the best teams in the world. Hopefully we can get more support for football in New Zealand and make it a little bit more like Spain.”