The praise heaped on Real Madrid by the team’s FIFA Club World Cup rivals before the tournament turned out to be justified. The hot favourites more than lived up to expectations in Morocco by winning their fourth trophy of 2014, making this the most successful calendar year in the club’s history.
The ruthless manner in which Madrid brushed the opposition aside may have had a familiar look to it – after all, Carlo Ancelotti’s men had conquered Europe in May by winning the UEFA Champions League for the tenth time. But the team’s current 22 game winning streak, the most recent of which came with a 2-0 victory over San Lorenzo in the final, has taken Los Merengues to another level. Madrid, who disappointed at their last appearance at the Club World Cup in 2000, will now make sure the trophy takes pride of place in the Santiagao Bernabeu cabinet.
"It’s a fitting end to an unforgettable year. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and delighted with our performances. For me, Real Madrid are the best team in the world," said Ancelotti who, after winning the Club World Cup in 2007 with Milan, is now a two-time world club champion.
But while the manager is entitled to enjoy his team’s success, he is also already thinking about the future. "I’m proud to say that I have a very professional, serious and focused group of players to work with. I'd be delighted if we could repeat what we’ve achieved this year.”
It would take a brave person to bet against it. With a talented, versatile squad, Madrid showed how dangerous they are once again in Morocco, even though their biggest star did not find the net. This season’s top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score in the wins over Cruz Azul (4-0) and San Lorenzo, but still managed to play a key role in his team’s triumph. And as proof of the team’s versatility, it was a central defender who scored the decisive goals.
Plaudits and records
Sergio Ramos set Madrid on the road to victory in both the semi-final and the final, thanks to the same strength, determination and positional awareness he displayed when scoring the dramatic late equaliser in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. The adidas Golden Ball award he received after the tournament was a fitting reward for this goalscoring defender’s heroics.
“It has been a really memorable year for me, and I'm delighted to have been able to contribute goals in important matches. It’s the happiest phase of my life, both on a personal and professional level," said Ramos. "I can’t ask for much more than this, but tomorrow I’ll start to think about our next trophy. We know this team can keep on achieving great things.”
In terms of making history, Real, who have now equalled Milan’s record of four World and Intercontinental Cup wins, a number of players had special reason to celebrate: Iker Casillas, as the only survivor from the team that came fourth in 2000; Toni Kroos, the midfield colossus and provider of the passes for Ramos’ goals, who won his third world title in 12 months; and Cristiano Ronaldo, who after winning the Club World Cup with Manchester United in Japan in 2008, becomes one of the few players to have won the trophy with two different teams. And the incredible achievements of this team may be just beginning.
Not only did Real Madrid’s triumph in Morocco represent the climax of the club’s phenomenal current run, but it also confirmed the recent domination of European sides in the tournament. It was the seventh win in 11 editions for the UEFA representatives, and the third time an Argentinian team has been defeated in the final. After overcoming modest Auckland City in the semi-final with a 2-1 extra time win, San Lorenzo could not repeat the heroics that won them the Copa Libertadores.
Still, the team showed great courage against a side which even the San Lorenzo players had described as "the best in the world” before the tournament. "We knew it’d be a very tough game but we didn’t fall far short. We made a couple of errors [for Madrid’s two goals] and you can’t afford a single moment of carelessness against a team like this with players of this class,” said Leandro Romagnoli after the final.
But even if the champions made fulfilling their role as favourites look easy, the Club World Cup in Morocco hardly lacked surprises and great stories. The biggest shock of all was undoubtedly provided by New Zealand’s Auckland City, who, after numerous unsuccessful appearances at the tournament, finally earned their place in history.
Tremendously improved on previous years, the semi-professional team led by Catalan coach Ramon Tribulietx recorded confident victories over Moghreb Tetouan and ES Setif, gave an organised, skilful display against San Lorenzo in the semi-final, and eventually claimed an improbable third place after overcoming Cruz Azul on penalties.
Nor was Auckland’s success the result of the team riding its luck. "I'm so proud of what we’ve achieved. We didn’t lose a single game [in normal time], and we deserved to come third because we were fantastic from start to finish. These players are the real moral winners," said Tribulietx.
Despite coming from a country accustomed to a more direct style of play, the impact of Auckland’s tactical innovations were clearly visible: the team made headlines around the world, and the players are guaranteed an unprecedented welcome back home. No one will underestimate this team in future tournaments.
According to midfielder Christian Gimenez, there was a sense of shame associated with Cruz Azul’s fourth place finish in Morocco. Although the team started the tournament well enough, in the end they could not avoid another frustrating campaign for Mexico’s representatives at the Club World Cup.
Still, at least the team provided one of the most memorable images of the competition during their victory over Western Sydney Wanderers. After putting his team ahead in extra-time in a match played in pouring rain, Hugo Pavone dived chest first into one of the many puddles on the waterlogged pitch in Rabat. "It was like being a child again. When it rained, the best way to celebrate was always to dive into a puddle."
The striker's joy that day came in sharp contrast to the disappointment of the Wanderers players. After the fairy tale of winning the AFC Champions League in 2014, two defeats sent the young Australian side home early. At least they managed to score two great goals in the Match for Fifth Place: one by Romeo Castelen, and the other by Vitor Saba, whose terrific free kick brought to mind Ronaldinho’s goal in last year’s competition. The similarity was no coincidence: the Brazilian spent six months watching Ronaldinho practicing free-kicks when he played for Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro. "I picked up a few tricks," he joked.
In the same game, ES Setif provided African fans with one of their few happy memories of the tournament by claiming fifth place. While Abdelmalik Ziaya scored a marvellous goal, driving a bouncing ball into the top corner, it was goalkeeper Sofiane Khediairia who ultimately emerged as the hero during the penalty shoot-out. Unlike 2013, when Raja Casablanca caused a sensation by reaching the final, the African representatives did not have much cause to celebrate in 2014.
Or perhaps they did. Even though Morocco’s Moghreb Tetouan also failed to impress, the number of white shirts and flags in the stands showed that the fans in Marrakech had adopted Real Madrid as the newest local team. "The support we received from the fans was a pleasant surprise. We felt at home," said Carlo Ancelotti. After that, all he and his players had to do was what they have become very good at doing – win a title, and play some great football. It is becoming something of a habit for this Real Madrid team.
When: 10-20 December, 2014
Final: Real Madrid 2-0 San Lorenzo
Goals: 20 (average of 2.5 per game)
Total attendance: 228,021 (average of 28,503 per game)