Arab flavour adds spice to opening dish
Sunday's opening clash between Arab neighbours Al Ahly of Egypt and Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia may come at the quarter-final stage of the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 but it has all the markings of a final itself and the makings of a classic.
The African and Asian champions were the last to grab tickets to the world party but the manner of their continental victories suggest they could be an outside threat for the global crown in Japan. These are no ordinary sides whose players' ambitions extend to swapping shirts at the final whistle with the likes of Gerrard or Amoroso. Ahly have not been beaten for 55 matches, a remarkable record stretching back more than 16 months. Ittihad, for their part, have not only won back-to-back AFC Champions League titles but have simply crushed their opponents, knocking them for sevens, fives and fours.
"I always said that we will go to Japan with one target in mind which is to show the world our worth and defend our reputation as African champions," said Ahly's Portuguese coach Manuel Jose who has masterminded their success. "We just hope to be first-class ambassadors for Egyptian and African football."
Al Ittihad boss Anghel Iordanescu was equally upbeat. "We have dominated local football and let's say Asia too. It's not easy to win the AFC Champions League two times," said the Romanian. "We are representing Asia, we want to continue our development and we want to win."
While a potential clash with Sao Paulo lurks tantalisingly in the background, neither coach is willing to focus beyond the Arab derby.
"They are our neighbours, we see them on TV and they see us," explained Jose. "They are a good team and have some dangerous players like Mohamed Kallon. Only if we overcome them should we start thinking of our next opponent. It's a knockout game but we have a strategy."
Having qualified first, Iordanescu, who coached Romania at the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups, had the chance to watch Ahly in action in the final of the African Champions League against Etoile Sahel.
"I've been long enough in the game to know only to look at your next match," he said responding to reporters' questions on a potential semi-final clash with the Brazilians. "We'll try to play modern, offensive and quality football. I hope my players live up to my words on the pitch."
For Ahly, Angolans Gilberto and Flavio are the only players in the squad born outside of Egypt.
"When we started to rebuild the team last season, I thought about us being the Century Club and the 40 million supporters and decided we must begin by looking to Africa," explained Jose. "Why do players go to Europe, why not stay in Africa?
Forwards Emad Motab, Mohamed Barakat and Mohamed Aboutrika, the players that have grabbed the most headlines, are also the ones that have flourished under the veteran coach's watchful eye.
Al Ittihad, meanwhile, have not been afraid to bring in a big name to bolster their side. Along with Brazilian winger Tcheco, who appeared in their first Champions League success in 2004, the Saudi side added strikers Mohamed Kallon of Sierra Leone and Joseph Desire-Job from Cameroon to their ranks during the summer transfer season.
Kallon, especially, has proved his worth, becoming the Asian competition's top scorer.
"We took Kallon because we believe we are a big team and we need to have big players," Iordanescu stated.
The heart of the Al Ittihad side though has a local beat. Goalkeeper Mabrouk Zaid has looked assured between the sticks for both club and country, captain Mohamed Noor continues to score vital goals and defender Hamad Al Montashari recently picked up the AFC Player of the Year award in Kuala Lumpur.
It was a touching moment for the 23-year-old with his team-mates around to witness his grand day. The Jeddah side had decided to spend five days in Malaysia en route to Japan to counter the effects of jet lag.
"It is my second time at this tournament," said Iordanescu, whose Steaua Bucharest side lost to River Plate in 1986. "We were worried about the time difference then and I remember we didn't have the opportunity to go somewhere to prepare for the match.
Meanwhile, Ahly, who go into the match after ten straight wins in the Egyptian league, were the first of the six clubs competing in the tournament to arrive in Japan and have been given plenty of time to acclimatise.
Temperatures, hovering just above freezing in the Japanese capital, will be least of the coach's concerns going into the game though. With so much resting on the match, the 60,000-capacity National stadium is sure to the hottest place in Tokyo on Sunday night.