Barcelona arrived in Abu Dhabi with two magisterial reputations to uphold. They were, consensually, the best and the most exhilarating team on the planet. The blaugrana marker underlined the latter distinction in the thickest of fonts, with Pep Guardiola’s genius-crowded cast wowing spectators with their inimitable, irresistible brand of football. They ultimately emboldened the former, too – albeit following a momentous scare – by beating Estudiantes 2-1 to lift an unprecedented sixth trophy of the year and maiden FIFA Club World Cup.
Barça’s illustrious, bulging trophy cabinet was, curiously, devoid of a world title as the tournament commenced. They lost 2-1 to Sao Paulo in the Toyota Cup – a precursor to the FIFA Club World Cup – in 1992, before falling 1-0 to Internacional three years ago. The slight suspicion they would suffer an identical fate at UAE 2009 enhanced just five minutes into their campaign.
However, Guillermo Rojas’s goal, which gave Atlante an unforeseen lead in their semi-final, did not serve to rattle the European champions. Conversely, it provoked a Catalonian carnival. Barcelona ultimately emerged 3-1 winners – a result that, in truth, flattered the Mexicans – to reach a final that would prove arguably the finest in the six-edition existence of the FIFA Club World Cup.
It was one that, on balance, Barcelona dominated. Caped in their lambent pink away jerseys, Dani Alves, Xavi, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co employed breathtaking dribbles, flicks, one-twos and through-balls to create chances in superabundance. Inconceivably, however, they were unable to get the ball into the back of Damian Albil’s net, which was resolutely, heroically protected by the defence of the La Plata side, who had taken a 37th-minute lead through Mauro Boselli’s header.
That was until the 89th-minute. That was until Barcelona’s immutable storm of pressure finally paid dividends. That was until Pedro’s header sent the game into extra time, in which Barça continued to overwhelm their opponents. A winning goal duly arrived. It belonged – as soon would the adidas Golden Ball and TOYOTA Award – to that man Messi, a darling to the locals.
“We knew Estudiantes would put up a big fight,” said Guardiola, who was in tears following the final whistle, afterwards. “At half-time I told my players they had to be strong, that you have to dig deep to win finals like this. They showed their determination.
“It’s been an amazing year. By winning six trophies we have achieved something that no-one has achieved before. I’m lucky that I have such quality players in my squad. The success that we’ve had has been down to them and I’d like to thank them for that.”
Estudiantes, nevertheless, deserve grand applause. They were, after all, just minutes away from completing a victory few deemed within the realms of possibility.
Third place went to Pohang, whose arresting, unexpected exhibition evoked memories of their nation’s charge to a fourth-placed finish at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. It did not appear likely when TP Mazembe took the lead against the South Koreans in their quarter-final. That, however, was Denilson’s cue to showcase his genius. The Brazilian scored twice to send the Asian champions through to the last four at the expense of their African counterparts.
The 33-year-old then radiated and scored in a 2-1 defeat by Estudiantes. Had Pohang not been reduced to eight men, had Denilson not consequently been reverted from predator to goalkeeper, a match the Argentinian giants were expected to cruise could have had a different outcome. The striker then helped his side beat Atlante on penalties in the third-place play-off – he was on target in a 1-1 draw, before dispatching his spot-kick in the shootout – and finished as the tournament’s leading marksman.
Auckland City, alike Pohang, exceeded all expectations. New Zealand’s record at the FIFA Club World Cup read four matches, four defeats prior to kick-off. However, Paul Posa’s disciplined, industrious outfit upset local side Al Ahli to reach the quarter-finals, where they gave Atlante a stricter examination than most predicted in a 3-0 defeat, and the Kiwis belied the odds once again in the match for fifth place, beating Mazembe 3-2.
Indeed, as a theatrical, dance-themed closing ceremony provided a handsome, fitting conclusion to the tournament, multiple sources had reason for celebration: the United Arab Emirates for playing an estimable role as hosts; Auckland City for enhancing what has been a glorious year for football in New Zealand; Pohang Steelers for making a mockery of the premise they were in Abu Dhabi to make up the numbers; and Barcelona for seductively, belatedly becoming the kings of a discipline they have perpetually illuminated.
However, as FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter had promised, there was another almighty winner: the sport that categorically emphasised its status as ‘the beautiful game’ in this Arabian Peninsula paradise.
1st - Barcelona (ESP)
2nd - Estudiantes (ARG)
3rd – Pohang Steelers (KOR)
4th – Atlante (MEX)
5th – Auckland City (NZL)
6th – TP Mazembe (COD)
7th – Al Ahli (UAE)
Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium (Abu Dhabi), Zayed Sports City (Abu Dhabi).