All three editions of the FIFA Club World Cup have culminated in Brazilian sides being crowned champions: Corinthians in 2000, Sao Paulo in 2005 and SC Internacional de Porto Alegre in 2006. That is surely no coincidence, and can be considered all the more impressive for the fact that the beaten finalists in the last two tournaments have been the heavily-tipped European champions.
As the final whistle blew on Internacional's 1-0 win over the mighty Barcelona on 17 December in Japan, an enormous wave of celebrations erupted thousands of miles away in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Then, just as the party showed signs of slowing down, the newly crowned world champions touched down on home soil where masses of jubilant supporters gave the all-conquering Colorados the welcome their achievements deserved.
Inter: before and after
Make no mistake, the history of Internacional de Porto Alegre will now come under two headings: before and after Japan 2006. In the words of coach Abel Braga: "We set ourselves a goal and really went for it. Now we're world champions and at the very top of the game. Barcelona have an excellent team but we played with real courage and desire. My boys are true heroes."
A hard-fought 2-1 win over Egyptian side Al Ahly in the semi-finals, compared with Barca's 4-0 mauling of Mexico's Club America, had seen Inter placed firmly in the role of underdogs ahead of the decisive final match. However, thanks to Braga's astute tactical set-up and the grit and determination of his players, the Brazilian 'David' was able to keep the Spanish 'Goliath' at bay until substitute Adriano's perfectly timed late strike sealed an historic triumph.
"Everything just fell into place," was the verdict of Inter skipper Fernandao. "We knew that we were going to have to mark Barcelona really tightly, not let them break through from midfield, and leave forward players high up the pitch to try and hit them on the break, and that's how we won the match. Did we deserve the win? Yes, of course, because we were playing against the best team in the world."
Meanwhile, victorious coach Braga wants still more from his Colorado charges: "Our goal for 2007 is to retain our (Copa) Libertadores and Club World Cup titles."
Barcelona gracious in defeat
Shortly after touching down in Japan, both Ronaldinho and Frank Rijkaard went to great lengths to shun their favourites' tag, whilst reiterating their desire to win the coveted trophy.
Most observers took these statements with a pinch of salt, and there were even more raised eyebrows when the former Oranje coach insisted that his side were still not favourites for the title after the 4-0 footballing lesson dished out to America. However, his side's subsequent loss to Inter in the final showed the Blaugrana coach's caution had been entirely justified.
"Now do you all see why we said we weren't favourites?" asked Deco after the painful reverse. "We were playing the better football but we couldn't take the chances that came our way. Inter defended really well and settled the game with one counter-attack. And I won't hear any talk about deserving it or not: if they won the game then they deserved it."
Following in a similar vein was Ronaldinho: "We're disappointed, but losing is part of life. Discussing who deserved to win is not going to affect the result, so we'll just have to work that much harder and not make the same mistakes again. What were we missing? I think we lacked a bit of luck, but we're on the right track. Now we've got to make sure we win the Champions League so we can come back next year."
Ahly impress, America disappoint
Having become the first team to qualify for two FIFA Club World Cups, Al Ahly headed to Japan with one clear goal in mind: to improve on their sixth-place finish from 2005.
With Portuguese coach Manuel Jose at the helm, the African champions stayed true to their tradition of stylish, attacking football, inspired by the genius of Mohamed Aboutrika. After overcoming New Zealand's Auckland City 2-0 in their opening game, the Egyptians pushed Inter all the way in the semi-final, going down 2-1 to the eventual winners. Aboutrika and Co swiftly bounced back from that defeat and sealed third place on the podium with a 2-1 success over Club America, earning them a rapturous reception on their arrival home. Mission accomplished, according to coach Manuel Jose: "We were determined to take part in the competition again to show the whole world the real Al Ahly. Finally, today, that's what happened."
Over in the Mexican camp however, disappointment reigned supreme. Given their history and big-name squad, Las Aguilas felt they could offer a stern challenge to Catalan giants Barcelona, should they reach the last four. They would get their opportunity after a narrow 1-0 win over Korean outfit Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC in the quarter-finals, only to be swept majestically aside by the UEFA Champions League holders in a 4-0 drubbing.
Desperately seeking some form of comfort in the play-off for third place, America were to be denied again by a buoyant Al Ahly. "The only thing left for me to do now is to apologise to our supporters for having failed to meet their expectations," said coach Luis Fernando Tena in the wake of the 2-1 defeat.
One side that did come out of the tournament with their reputations enhanced were Korea Republic's Jeonbuk. Skilled on the ball and tactically aware, the Koreans made life very difficult for big-spending America in their opener, losing only by the narrowest of margins. Jeonbuk then cut loose in the play-off for fifth place, storming to a 3-0 win over Auckland City. Along with their Kiwi opponents, beaten in both their outings on Japanese soil, the experience garnered at this level with surely stand them in good stead for the future.
Deco, a class apart
For FIFA's Technical Study Group, choosing the finest players at Japan 2006 was no easy task. In the end, the experts plumped for Barca's Portuguese magician Deco after two superb performances in the Catalans' two games in the Far East. The midfield schemer proved himself to be a cut above the other players on display, particularly in the semi-final against America, and justifiably picked up the adidas Golden Ball award.
The adidas Silver Ball went to hard-working Brazilian forward Pedro Iarley, the man whose inch-perfect pass led to Internacional's winning goal in the final. Just edged into third place was fellow samba star Ronaldinho, the Azulgrana No.10 coming away with the adidas Bronze Ball.
While they may have missed out on the individual awards, a number of other players also showed they were far from out of place on such a glittering stage. Leading the pack was Al Ahly's Mohamed Aboutrika, who not only pulled his team's attacking strings, but finished the tournament as top scorer with three goals. Also putting in standout displays were America shot-stopper Guillermo Ochoa, and hard-running Jeonbuk Motors midfielder Kim Hyeung Bum.
National Stadium (Tokyo), Toyota Stadium (Toyota City) and International Stadium (Yokohama)
Total goals scored: 17, an average of 2.43 per game
Attendance: A total of 302,142 spectators, an average of 43,163 per game