For four Barcelona players, Japan 2011 will be their third FIFA Club World Cup. It’s a tally of which Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes and Xavi can be proud, and yet this all-star Catalan quartet still find themselves falling just short of the tournament record.
What is more surprising is that the player they trail is not one of their team-mates, nor one of the competition’s icons, but rather an office administrator from Onehunga, New Zealand. His name is unlikely to resonate, but Daniel Koprivcic will be strutting his stuff at this global showpiece for a fourth time when Auckland City take on Kashiwa Reysol tomorrow evening. For a man who earns his living at a hydraulic engineering firm, and who, by his own admission, has only ever played the game as “a hobby”, this represents a truly remarkable achievement.
And no-one, it seems, is more amazed than Koprivcic himself. “It’s hard to believe really,” he told FIFA.com. “You have all these famous big-name players at this tournament, and here’s me with this record. I’ve been really lucky.
"It’s amazing because, for me, football has never been more than a hobby. I’ve never played professionally and, although I take the game seriously, it’s only something I’ve done in my spare time. And yet I know that there are thousands of professional players who would give anything to enjoy the kind of experiences I have. To be here, playing at a fourth Club World Cup – it’s more than I could ever have dreamt of.”
There are certainly precious few similarities between the 30-year-old’s career and those of his illustrious FIFA Club World Cup rivals. While Xavi, Iniesta and Co will travel to Japan in the wake of a Clásico watched by millions, Koprivcic’s main pre-tournament task was to arrange leave with his employers.
“I’m fortunate that my boss is very supportive,” he said. “That’s important because, at this club, we travel a lot. This competition is obviously a big commitment, but at other times we’re away playing O-League games and the like.”
It was in 2007, while on the books of Auckland’s city rivals, Waitakere United, that Koprivcic first required time off to compete at the FIFA Club World Cup. The following year, he was back, although on both occasions Waitakere’s adventure ended with defeat in their opening match.
UAE 2009, this time in the colours of Auckland, was a different story. On that occasion, the New Zealanders shocked everyone by not only beating host representatives Al Ahli, but later claiming a thrilling 3-2 win over African champions TP Mazembe. And as a veteran of all three campaigns, Koprivcic is perfectly positioned to judge why his current club succeeded where Waitakere failed.
“I think it was down to a few things,” he reflected. “That team in 2009 certainly had a lot of belief and quality, and we earned those wins. But I think you also have to acknowledge that it was easier to play the opening match against a team from UAE than from somewhere like Japan.”
Unfortunately for Auckland City, the tournament is back in the Land of the Rising Sun this year, and an in-form Kashiwa Reysol side await at the Toyota Stadium. No-one appreciates the scale of this challenge more than Koprivcic, whose respect for the J.League champions has been strengthened by poring over video footage.
“It’s been very impressive,” he conceded. “It’s obvious that Kashiwa are very sharp, very quick, and have great stamina and technique. But our coach pointed out a few things, obviously where they’re strong, but also where sees weaknesses we can hopefully exploit. It’s going to be really tough but we’ll give it our best shot. And who knows? Football’s a funny game, so you can never rule anything out.”
If anything goes to prove that, it is surely Koprivic and his improbable record.