Few people expected Oceania champions Auckland City to progress very far at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. Indeed, many observers predicted an early exit for the New Zealand side when they came up against the host country’s representatives Al Ahli in the opening match of the tournament. Coach Paul Posa and his troops had evidently failed to read the script though, and promptly beat the UAE side 2-0 to set up a quarter-final clash with Atlante.
Though the Mexican outfit proved too strong for the brave New Zealanders, running out 3-0 winners, that loss still lined Auckland City up for a fifth place play-off against African champions TP Mazembe. Another surprise victory, this time 3-2, saw the side from the North Island secure the highest-ever finish by a New Zealand team in the history of the tournament.
From the moment they arrived in Abu Dhabi, Posa and his players were confident they would do well in the competition and that the experience of playing in Japan in 2006 would stand them in good stead.
Posa, who is a dentist in his day job, spoke of the benefit of that experience: “Our first appearance at the Club World Cup was in 2006 and it proved very useful for us as we learned a lot from that tournament. We weren’t fully prepared for it, whereas this year we’ve made sure we had the best possible preparations. We’ve also learned a lot this time around. We wanted to improve and it has been a fantastic tournament for us. The lessons we’ve learned have made us a better team.”
Striker Jason Hayne, meanwhile, was quick to point out that “Finishing fifth is an achievement in itself. To get the chance to play against top class players is wonderful. As an amateur side, things are a bit different in New Zealand. We work a 40-hour week and then have to train on top of that. Playing against Atlante was very important as we now know the level we need to reach and we’ve taken a lot from that game.”
The 28-year-old forward struck three times in three games and is understandably delighted with that return. Now he is hungry for more: “We’ve played in this tournament twice now and we all want to come back for a third time and play here next year. We’ve set ourselves that target because you don’t often get the chance to play at such a high level and it’s brilliant when you do.”
The scorer of the winning goal against TP Mazembe, Riki Van Steeden said that he didn’t expect such a thrilling climax: “Football is an amazing game. There I was sitting on the bench feeling left out. Then I came on as a substitute and scored from my only chance. That was very exciting for me.” He added, “We’re still some distance away from reaching the necessary standard and have a long way to go before we’re able to compete at this level. Playing against teams like Atlante has taught us a huge lesson and we aim to reach this standard and that’s the most important thing we’ll take away from this tournament.”