The FIFA Club World Cup has never been a happy hunting ground for CONCACAF clubs. Of all its representatives over the years, only Necaxa in 2000 and Deportivo Saprissa in 2005 have taken a place on the podium.
Nevertheless, 2012 is shaping up to be a landmark year for the region, and it has nothing to do with Mayan prophecies either, with Mexican hopefuls Club de Futbol Monterrey on a mission to alter the course of Club World Cup history.
Los Rayados took the first step on Sunday, when they saw off Ulsan Hyundai 3-1 to set up a semi-final meeting against a hungry Chelsea side with a point or two to prove. The Mexicans have incentives of their own however, and should they beat the reigning European champions, they will become the first CONCACAF outfit ever to make it to the final of the competition.
“We’ve got to dance with the ugliest one, as we say in my country, and that’s Chelsea,” said Monterrey coach Victor Manuel Vucetich, looking ahead to Thursday’s crunch game. “We believe we’re strong enough though.”
That belief courses through Vucetich’s team, which is skippered by Argentinian centre-half Jose Maria Basanta, who told FIFA.com of his excitement at the prospect of charting new ground: “We know that no CONCACAF has ever reached the final and we want to be the first to do it. It’s something we’re dreaming about.”
A member of the side that lost out to Kashiwa Reysol in the last eight in 2011, the tall stopper was relieved to make short work of Ulsan at the weekend.
“There’s no getting away from it: it was our dream to play Chelsea,” said the 28-year-old, who has made three appearances in the competition in all. “We never mentioned that before because we want to be totally focused on our opening game. If we hadn’t concentrated on that game 100 per cent, we might have ended up getting another surprise like the one we had last year.”
Formerly with Argentinian giants Estudiantes and Olimpo of Brazil, and the cousin of Cruz Azul goal-getter Mariano Pavone, Basanta is expecting quite a challenge against the English Premier League side: “It’s going to be a very tough game against a team who have a big reputation in competitions like this. We need to play a measured game though, and be aware that anything can happen. Nothing is impossible.”
In it together
Basanta is not the only Argentinian with an important role to play in the Monterrey line-up. Midfielder Neri Cardozo is appearing in his third FIFA Club World Cup, while livewire forward Cesar Delgado, also known as El Chelito, is a close friend of the central defender, who has nothing but praise for him.
“When he’s in the mood he’s a different kind of player,” said Basanta of his compatriot, with whom he regularly meets up to have dinner or drink mate. “You could see that against Ulsan. He proved the difference and scored two cracking goals.”
Looking a little abashed by the effusive praise of his team-mate, who then took his leave amid a throng of journalists, Delgado offered up his thoughts on Thursday’s game.
“So we’ve got Chelsea? Well, we’ll just have to go out and enjoy ourselves,” said the soft-spoken striker with a smile, one that soon vanished as he assessed the Londoners’ style of play: “We know they’re going to play a different game to Ulsan and not hit so many long balls. I think their style will suit us too and let us play a more expansive game.”
Slight of build, the former Mexico and Cruz Azul front-man chooses his words carefully, so much so that it is hard to believe at times he is the same impish player who destroyed Ulsan with his verve and panache last Sunday.
“It’s a big responsibility to be playing Chelsea but we know we can spring a surprise,” he said, before setting out the objective he believes Monterrey are entitled to aspire to in the next few days: “We hope to reach what would be a historic final, and we don’t care who we have to face, whether it’s Chelsea or anyone else. If you want to be the champions, you have to beat everyone, don’t you? And that’s what we want to do: to surprise people, reach the final and win it. That’s what we’re here for.”