For Barcelona, the extraordinary has now become ordinary. The fact is, we are no longer astounded when Pep Guardiola’s side achieve incredible feats in sensational style. Their latest triumphant campaign here at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan broke records, wowed crowds and earned only generous acclaim from their outclassed rivals. That no-one was particularly surprised is perhaps the biggest compliment of all.
Their final against Santos had been billed as a showdown between the current king of football and one of the principal pretenders to his throne. As it was, even Neymar himself was gracious enough to admit that, for now at least, Lionel Messi and Barça are simply in a class of their own. “It’s impossible to stop them,” reflected the teenager. “Today, the best team in the world showed us how to play football.”
As Neymar’s comment suggests, the Catalans’ coronation really only confirmed what we already knew about their current pre-eminence. The club has now won 13 of the 16 trophies it has competed for under Guardiola, and secured their second FIFA Club World Cup in three years with the highest number of overall goals and with a record winning margin in the final itself. Yet it was the manner of the success that most pleased their coach. “In the first half, the players were like artists,” Guardiola enthused. “Whatever they envisioned in their minds, it appeared on the pitch.”
Even in a team packed full of virtuosos, Messi still managed to stand out. A brace in the 4-0 win over Santos saw the little Argentinian become the first player to score in multiple FIFA Club World Cup finals, and left his tally for the season at 29 from 26 appearances. While Xavi, winner of the adidas Silver Ball, was at his brilliant best in the final, and though Thiago impressed throughout, Messi’s place at the top of the pile was beyond dispute.
Yet, for all that Barça and their talismanic No10 reigned supreme, this was a tournament in which there was always going to be more than one winner. Even Santos, once they recover from their final humbling, will be able to reflect fondly on a 3-1 semi-final win over Kashiwa Reysol that was secured by a trio of truly outstanding goals.
Asian champions Al-Sadd, meanwhile, proudly flew the flag for Qatar, which became the 20th nation to be represented at FIFA’s club showpiece. Beating their African counterparts Esperance in the quarter-finals was a feat in itself, but the fact that Jorge Fossati’s side went on to secure third place came as a major boost for the game in this emerging football nation. “It’s a great day for Qatar,” beamed their Uruguayan coach. “Today is a national holiday in the country and I believe we are adding something to what will be a day of huge celebration.”
Kashiwa Reysol were the team Al-Sadd beat on penalties to secure a place on the podium, but not even the bitter taste of defeat in a match they dominated could detract from a fairy tale season for the Chiba outfit. It certainly should not forgotten that the Sun Kings won the J.League, becoming the first newly-promoted side to do so, just four days before competing in their FIFA Club World Cup opener. That 2-0 win over Auckland City in the tournament’s curtain-raiser was one of five matches Kashiwa faced in the space of 15 days – two of which went to penalties – and yet their play never lost the verve and energy that continues to earn scores of new admirers.
Auckland, despite bowing out early, could draw solace from having competed with an intensity that belied their amateur status, and from having provided a new FIFA Club World Cup record-breaker. Striker Daniel Koprivcic was, after all, competing in his fourth edition of the club showpiece, edging him ahead of an illustrious group of three-time veterans that includes, among others, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Even Monterrey and Esperance, arguably the most disappointed of the seven Japan 2011 hopefuls, could reflect on areas for optimism. For the Tunisians, hope for the future emerged in the shape of Yannick N’Djeng and Youssef Msakni, an accomplished attacking duo who, at 23 and 21 respectively, should have their best years ahead of them. Monterrey too showed that they have plenty of firepower, and while fifth place fell considerably short of their pre-tournament aims, the Mexicans returned home with the creditable record of having won one match and drawn the other.
Los Rayados could also lay claim to provided the quote of the tournament, courtesy of Ricardo Osorio. “Football is a sport of happiness, and hopefully this World Cup brings happiness to everyone in Japan,” the veteran fullback told FIFA.com ahead of the tournament. “No matter which team wins and which team loses, the goal must be to bring smiles to the people affected by the disasters.”
Osorio’s words typified a spirit of solidarity that pervaded a tournament taking place less than nine months after that devastating earthquake and tsunami of 11 March. Japan will host the FIFA Club World Cup once again next year and, should that event enjoy the same excitement, skill and flawless hosting on show in 2011, it’s sure to prove a very happy homecoming.
Toyota Stadium (Toyota)
Yokohama International Stadium (Yokohama)
2 goals: Lionel Messi, Adriano (both Barcelona)