The calendar year is inexorably drawing to a close, and while many people are beginning to wind down and think of the holiday season, that is definitely not the case for football fans around the world. The focus for the sport’s global family is firmly fixed on Japan this week, and the start of the FIFA Club World Cup 2011. The eighth edition of the intercontinental showdown boasts yet another exceptional array of teams.
Favourites for the trophy are Spanish giants FC Barcelona and their household-name squad. The UEFA Champions League holders claimed the world club crown in the United Arab Emirates two years ago, and now set off for the Far East determined to repeat the 2009 triumph. “We're under an obligation to win," declared superstar Lionel Messi in a FIFA.com interview. “The Club World Cup is a highly prestigious tournament, and we want to win it."
Copa Libertadores winners Santos harbour precisely the same ambition. The South Americans and their very own major star Neymar are determined to end the European representatives’ long winning streak. The UEFA Champions League holders have won the last four editions of the tournament. SC Internacional were the last South American side to claim the honours back in 2006, and Santos are now grimly determined to bring the trophy back to Brazil. “We can hardly wait for it to start. We're ready to go. I hope we lift the World Club Cup trophy," said playmaker Ganso.
However, before Barcelona and Santos enter the fray, the spotlight falls on teams from the other confederations. The opening match pits New Zealand club Auckland City, winners of the OFC O-League, against Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol. The “hosts" for this year's FIFA Club World Cup have already made history, as their J.League success was the first-ever title triumph by a promoted club in the history of the Japanese top flight.
“Ever since we were promoted last season, I've been dreaming of winning the Club World Cup," said striker Hideaki Kitajima, reflecting the euphoria in the Japanese club’s ranks. The men from Auckland are duly approaching the tie with plenty of respect. “Kashiwa are a strong team and currently riding a wave of success. This first match is as tough as they come. If we’re going to cause a massive upset, we have to be at our best," said Auckland captain Ivan Vicelich.
The winners of this match progress to a quarter-final meeting with CONCACAF Champions League holders Monterrey. The Mexicans arrive in Japan with publicly-declared ambitions of glory. “We have a great opportunity, and I believe my team are in good shape – strong, united and with real quality. They’re also hungry, which is important. We have genuine dreams of winning this title," coach Victor Manuel Vucetich told FIFA.com.
The second quarter-final is the clash between the African and Asian Champions League winners, Esperance Sportive De Tunis and Al-Sadd Club. Following an exceptional season culminating in a historic treble of league, cup and continental glory, the Tunisians are brimming with confidence ahead of the global head-to-head. “Taking part in this tournament is a dream come true for me personally. I hope we can leave behind a lasting impression," said defender Harrison Afful, scorer of his side's winning goal in the CAF Champions League final.
Qatari opponents Al-Sadd are quite happy to be cast in the role of underdogs, and are quietly confident of springing a surprise. “There's no way we're favourites, so we're under no pressure at all. If we have the right attitude and give it everything, who knows what might happen?" captain Abdulla Koni mused.
Last year's edition conclusively proved that no team can be written off at this event, as witnessed by TP Mazembe Engelbert’s stunning success in becoming the first African team ever to make the final. Excitement is guaranteed when the tournament kicks off on Thursday, as an action-packed 2011 heads towards a spectacular conclusion .