Ivan Vicelich knows all about making World Cup history. The Auckland City captain was, after all, an ever-present in the New Zealand side that emerged from South Africa 2010 as the tournament’s only unbeaten team.
That unlikely status, secured via a draw against the then world champions, was not, however, the 35-year-old’s first experience of causing a sensation on the global stage. Six months earlier, he had led Auckland through an equally impressive campaign at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009, one that blazed a trail for Ricki Herbert’s All Whites.
Oceania's representatives had never previously avoided defeat at FIFA’s club showpiece, but the New Zealanders - not content with smashing that statistic by beating Al Ahli - went on to repeat the feat against last year’s finalists, TP Mazembe. Yet although those experiences have established him as an expert at upsetting the odds, Vicelich is playing down talk of springing another surprise in Thursday’s Japan 2011 curtain-raiser against Kashiwa Reysol.
“It’s a difficult prospect to be honest, facing the Japanese champions,” he told FIFA.com. “For a small amateur team like ours, it’s going to take something absolutely out of the ordinary to get any kind of result.
“I don’t think the public back home understand how big an achievement it was winning two games in Abu Dhabi. And then we had New Zealand going unbeaten at the World Cup and drawing with Italy. Well, our task in Japan is just as formidable.
“Every Oceania team that goes to the FIFA Club World Cup faces a tough task anyway, but this first match is as tough as they come. Kashiwa will be firm favourites – they’re playing at home and have a chance to go all the way to the final and possibly even win the competition. If we’re going to cause a massive upset, we have to be at our maximum.”
Ensuring that Vicelich and his team-mates arrive in Japan in peak condition has been the challenge facing Ramon Tribulietx. And while Auckland City’s Barcelona-born coach shares his skipper’s pragmatic outlook, he believes that intensive pre-tournament training sessions have helped bridge the gap between the Kiwis and their professional opponents.
“What we did in Abu Dhabi doesn’t happen very often and we know it will be more difficult against the Japanese champions,” he conceded. “But we’re leaving nothing to chance. Although we’re amateurs, we are 100 per cent committed to winning. We’re training every day, so the differences are minimal. Most of our players work 40 hours per week, then train with us, and in some ways that’s tougher than being in a professional environment.”
Though determined to ensure that his side fight tooth and nail to end the hosts’ hopes, Tribulietx does expect a spirit of camaraderie to pervade the opening match. After all, 2011 has been a year in which football has been put firmly in perspective for both Japan and New Zealand.
“Both countries suffered terrible disasters and I’m sure the two teams will want put on an entertaining game,” he said, referring to the earthquakes that devastated both nations. “I hope that, after these tough times, the connection between Auckland City and the people of Japan is positive and we share this feeling of solidarity and mutual respect.”
Vicelich, meanwhile, was the last of the Auckland City players to arrive in Japan, having remained in New Zealand to attend the birth of his second child. And the 2009 OFC Player of the Year admitted that, regardless of the outcome on Thursday, he already feels like a winner.
“I’ve played in many big games in my career but none of them compare with parenthood,” said the beaming centre-half. “I’m a very proud father for the second time, and now I can concentrate on the challenge awaiting us in Toyota City.”