African underdogs set for Brazil's big boys
The first FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 semi-final on
Wednesday evening promises an exciting encounter when South
American champions Sport Club Internacional from Porto Alegre , one
of the favourites to lift the trophy, enter the competition against
ambitious underdogs Al Ahly Sporting Club of Egypt .
The match at the National Stadium in Tokyo is the first on Japanese soil for the South Americans, but the African CAF Champions League winners have already earned their spurs at the tournament with a 2-0 quarter-final victory over New Zealand hopefuls Auckland City FC.
That result came as little surprise against the Oceania amateurs, but the Africans were still made to work for their victory, struggling for fluency at times and proving worryingly profligate in front of goal. Al Ahly know they must make more of their chances if they are to overcome Internacional and reach the final. "We need more belief in ourselves," demanded coach Manuel Jose, "my players don't need to think about things too much. We have nothing to lose . At worst we'll gain valuable experience."
Manuel cited two reasons why his side's quarter-final triumph was of crucial importance to the club. On the one hand, it was the first-ever victory for an African side at the FIFA Club World Cup, following five straight defeats: Raja Casablanca lost all three of their matches in 2000, with Al Ahly themselves falling to defeat twice last year. And on the other hand, the result was a first clean sheet for the African representatives.
If the Egyptians are to repeat that feat against the Brazilians, they will need to shift up at least one more gear, as the gifted South Americans represent a daunting proposition compared to the plucky part-timers from the southern seas.
Coach Jose Manuel remained a picture of unruffled calm ahead of the meeting with Internacional. "We were under a lot of pressure last year, as we were favourites against the Saudi Arabian team and the Australians. But Inter are favourites this time, and that'll help us. My men need be frightened of nothing."
The Portuguese coach will be keen to pass on the insights he has gleaned in the course of a long and distinguished coaching career at a range of top-flight clubs in Portugal. He naturally keeps a close eye on the Brazilian football scene and is not expecting to be surprised by Wednesday's opponents. "There's simply a huge difference between Brazilian and Egyptian football," the 60-year-old remarked.
The FIFA Club World Cup has hosted one previous meeting between teams from Brazil and Africa, Corinthians' 2-0 victory over Raja Casablanca in 2000. Internacional approach Wednesday's match in the role of hot favourites, as Brazilian teams have yet to lose in ten matches at the FIFA Club World Cup. Sao Paulo won both their matches last year to finish as world champions, Corinthians won two and drew two six years ago, and Vasco da Gama won three games at the same tournament before playing out a goalless draw with Corinthians in the final. Corinthians ultimately claimed the crown on penalties.
Internacional keeper Clemer is convinced that this impressive record will be maintained on Wednesday. "We're on form at the moment and in excellent physical shape. That's exactly what you need when you're aiming to win the trophy," the shot-stopper declared. Abel Braga's men know they are just one game away from a showdown for the title of world club champions. "My players have exceptional individual talent. I think we have a chance of winning the trophy," the coach observed.
Naturally, the South Americans would like to claim the world crown as a matter of their own prestige, but they will also sense a certain national obligation to continue the series which has seen Brazilian clubs win the tournament on both previous occasions. "It's an honour for us to be here at a tournament featuring a number of world-class players," Fernandao enthused. "Our goal is the final, so we've got to win the semi-final first." Team-mate Clemer neatly summarised the value of the event to the South Americans. "Winning this tournament would be a dream come true, as we've never won this trophy before."