Auckland's underdogs set to bite back
Much has been made of Auckland City's amateur status in the build-up to the FIFA Club World Cup and, certainly, were the Kiwis to march all the way to the final, it would not be so much a football fairytale as a veritable miracle.
Yet there are many within the New Zealanders' camp who believe that this, their principal weakness, might also prove to be their greatest advantage, and there is a determination to ruthlessly punish even the slightest complacency creeping into their professional opponents' play. Indeed, while African champions Al Ahly , Auckland's opponents in the opening match, would doubtless scoff at such suggestions, given the humbling defeat that Sydney FC inflicted upon them at last year's tournament, goalkeeper Ross Nicholson believes that the Egyptians could well be taken in by the portrayal of his team as potential cannon-fodder.
"I think being perceived as amateur players is really to our advantage," the part-time sign-writer told FIFA.com. "People often overlook the fact that most of our squad has some form of international football experience. Personally, I'll thrive on the chance to play at a higher level. I'll be going out to keep a clean sheet and perform well and meet the standards I set for myself. Anything less than that won't be good enough."
The Kiwis' cause has not been helped by last week's departure to the Aussie A-League of Dean Gordon, a 33-year-old defender able to draw on a vast reservoir of experience accrued during a top-level career that featured lengthy stints in the English Premiership with both Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough.
Gordon, as the Auckland player best placed to assess the gulf in quality that separates the club from the likes of Barcelona, had found his advice sought out on a frequent basis and, though candid enough to admit that there is "a huge chance" of his former team-mates being brought down to earth with a bump, he believes that to flourish, they need only believe in themselves and each other.
He said: "A few of the boys asked me what it's like because they want to gauge the difference between playing as a full-time professional footballer and where the NZFC (New Zealand Football Championship) is. I think the difference at the highest level is that teams don't give the ball away as much and they do the basics very well and move the ball very quickly.
"From an Auckland City perspective, they have to make sure they are not beaten before they step out. When you are younger, sometimes a big vocal support or the size of the crowd can beat you before the game even starts. They don't want to be embarrassed, but there is a huge chance of that if they don't play to the best of our ability. They have to concentrate on the game and not get caught up in all the media attention. I played in front of 67,000 people at Old Trafford and beat Manchester United, and there is no feeling like it. The boys have a chance to do the same, and many of the Auckland City players have an opportunity to further their careers."
Change in the dugout
One Auckland star still young enough to dream of a big move is striker Paul Urlovic, a New Zealand international who earns his living as a truck driver, and the 28-year-old is firmly of the opinion that the draw for the opening round of matches could have been considerably tougher.
"I think we're better playing (Al Ahly) than Internacional or Barcelona," he told FIFA.com. "I think it will be a tough physical encounter and a very different style to what we are used to, but that's better for us. It will be tough, but maybe we can get a result. We are not professionals, we're underdogs for sure, but we aren't afraid."
Auckland have not, of course, enjoyed the ideal preparation for a tournament of this magnitude, having been rushed into re-instating former coach Allan Jones on an interim basis just days before departing, this following the shock departure of Jones' initial successor, Roger Wilkinson . Wilkinson had been in the job less than five months, but following a dispute with a group of senior players including star striker Keryn Jordan , the Englishman agreed with chairman Ivan Vuksich that he and the club were "just not compatible". That paved the way for the highly-regarded Jones, who had left to take charge of the national women's team, to make a timely, if temporary, return for the duration of the FIFA Club World Cup, and to finish the job he himself started by guiding Auckland to domestic and continental success.
"Our playing style is one that will hopefully entertain the Japanese public and we will certainly attempt to attack at our opponents at every opportunity," Jones said yesterday after recovering from an ankle injury to take his place on the flight to Japan. "However, we have immense respect for Al Ahly, who are a club with immense experience of winning football matches and titles.
"Our expectations - the players' expectations - are that we will compete to the level required at this very prestigious tournament. Our players are all amateur, they train when they finish their day jobs, and they will be playing against fully professional players. Having said that, these players have courage and they are not afraid of the situation in front of them. In fact, they are looking forward to it. While they're in a state of euphoria at the moment, they know what's in front of them. This is the culmination of two, and in some cases three hard years of work, so they're not going to blow it at the last hurdle."
Rank outsiders they may be, but with Auckland City so fiercely determined to represent their club, country and continent with distinction, their opponents might just find that this underdog possesses a bite of which they should remain extremely wary.