For any sportsperson, the opportunity to pit one’s wits against the very best brings with it a special sense of achievement. That opportunity came the way of Al-Sadd yesterday, when they faced Barcelona in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011.
Delighted to have battled past Esperance in the previous round to tee up a meeting with the Catalan giants, the Qatari outfit were quickly made aware of the harsh realities of life at the pinnacle of global football, as their vaunted opponents recycled possession with their customary poise and subjected them to the sternest of examinations.
At the end of it all, the European champions emerged comfortable 4-0 winners, dominating their Asian counterparts to such an extent that they allowed them only 28 per cent possession and fired in 19 shots on goal to Al-Sadd’s two, neither of which troubled Victor Valdes in the Barça goal.
Lamenting his side’s failure to test the tournament favourites, Al-Sadd forward Kader Keita said: “We expected Barcelona to dictate the pace and to make us chase the ball, but the hardest thing to take is the fact we couldn’t create any danger. We’d have felt differently about losing if we’d managed to score a goal.”
Keita’s team-mates were in philosophical mood as they filed out of the dressing room at the International Stadium Yokohama. The prevailing feeling was one of satisfaction at having given their all against superior opposition.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Senegal and former Marseille striker Mamadou Niang expressed the powerlessness he and his team-mates felt in trying to halt the Barcelona machine: “Barça monopolise the ball two-thirds of the time, and whenever you have it they get it back from you straightaway.
"They made hardly any tactical errors and as soon as we conceded the first goal we knew it was virtually mission impossible. We suffered but not in the strict sense of the word, and it was a good experience for us. The one thing we shouldn’t do is feel ashamed about this defeat.”
Coach Jorge Fossati reflected: "More than anything else I feel proud at reaching the semi-finals of the Club World Cup and taking on Barcelona. My players did everything they could, but we made some unforgivable errors. Our defence had been in good shape, but those mistakes were the major reason why Barcelona had so much success up front.”
Having taken Al-Sadd to the peak of Asian football, the Uruguayan tactician is hoping to draw on the experience as he plans for the future: “I’m sure my young players will benefit a great deal from everything they’ve gone through here.”
Niang, an isolated figure for much of the game, added: “Barcelona force you to play how they want. The coach kept telling us not to fall back, but we just couldn’t help it.”
Al-Sadd have a couple of days to digest their Barcelona lesson before taking on Kashiwa Reysol in Sunday’s match for third place in Yokohama. And whatever happens there, the Qataris will have fond memories of their Japanese adventure, as Niang confirmed: “I still can’t get over the welcome we’ve had here and the enthusiasm, kindness and respect the Japanese people have shown.”