FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016

FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016

8 December - 18 December 2016

FIFA Club World Cup 2016

Lucas and Nacho following Raul’s lead

Lucas Vázquez and Nacho Fernández, with Raúl's inspiration

Though neither Lucas Vazquez nor Nacho Fernandez saw it live - it was a school day and they could not skip classes - both remember Raul’s stunning winner for Real Madrid against Vasco de Gama of Brazil in the 1998 Intercontinental Cup.

The score was tied at 1-1 with seven minutes remaining at the National Stadium in Tokyo, and the Spaniards aiming to win the trophy for a second time - 38 years on from the first against Penarol. As extra time beckoned, Raul latched on to a long ball from Clarence Seedorf, cutting inside one defender and then another – leaving them both sprawling on the ground in the process – before calmly slotting the ball past the keeper. It was the kind of goal he had scored time and again for Real Madrid’s youth teams and it even had a nickname of its own, el gol del aguanís, dreamed up by his team-mates’ parents.

Lucas was seven when that fabled goal was scored and Nacho eight. Future Real Madrid youth players, neither of them could have imagined that 18 years later they would be on the point of flying out to Japan in a bid to emulate the legendary No7 in the FIFA Club World Cup, the competition that has replaced the Intercontinental Cup.

Before travelling with Los Blancos to vie for the title of “the world’s best club”, the two players spoke to about Raul’s memorable winner all those years ago and the challenge that lies ahead of them in the next few days.

“I’m sure I watched a repeat of the final later,” began Nacho. “I remember Raul’s goal more than anything else. It’s been on TV so many times, I’m sure everyone’s seen it by now.” Attempting to recall the move, Lucas said: “He shifted the ball so fast with his feet. The first thing I remember doing that morning was checking if Madrid had won or not.”

Unable to conceal his admiration for the scorer of that fondly remembered goal, the wide man said: “Madrid have had some great footballers, but Raul was always my hero when I was a boy, because of everything he meant to the club and how good he was.” The Spanish great was followed by other idols such as Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, with whom Lucas now shares a dressing room. “He was my hero too when he signed for the club,” he added.

A defender by trade, Nacho always kept a closer eye on the men at the back and had a role model of his own in that 1998 team: “Fernando Hierro is one player I’ve always liked a lot,” he explained. Then came Fabio Cannavaro and a player Nacho tries to learn something from every day: Sergio Ramos. “I’ve always watched what he does,” said Nacho admiringly of his club captain.

Persistence pays off
Madrid fans born and bred, just like Raul, both players have had to work hard to gain their first-team opportunities. Farmed out to Espanyol on loan in 2014, Lucas was back with Madrid the following season, while Nacho stayed on, biding his time and waiting for his chance, which has finally come. “I’m feeling good. I feel strong,” he said. “I’ve had a good run of games, which is just what I needed. I know there’s an awful lot of competition for places and I’ve been battling for a first-team slot for many years. I try to fight hard in every training session and in every game.”

When Lucas returned to Madrid in 2015, few gave him much chance of making a success of things, not with Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo – the much-vaunted 'BBC' – ahead of him in the pecking order. The winger earned himself an opportunity, however, and played a vital role in his side’s Champions League final win in Milan last season, converting the first penalty in the decisive shoot-out. “It’s been a fantastic year so far, very exciting and a little bit crazy too,” he said with a smile. “I’m very happy because this is something I’ve been striving for since I was a boy. I’m living a dream.”

The latest chapter in that dream will come in Japan with his maiden Club World Cup, a competition he watched on TV when Madrid made their last appearance, in Morocco in 2014. “I was playing for Espanyol, but I watched the semi-final and the final,” he explained. 

Nacho was there two years ago, however, and though he was an unused substitute, he has happy memories of the tournament. “It was our first time in the competition,” he said with a broad smile. “People say it’s easy, but it’s anything but because you have to win the Champions League just to get there. It was a great experience and it ended in the best possible way for us. I hope we can do it again this time.”

Lucas hopes so too. He would like nothing better than to end the year with another trophy secured and to wear a shirt bearing the FIFA World Champions Badge. “To be able to wear a badge that says you’re the best team in the world makes you want to win it even more. Everywhere you go people will know that you’re the champions.”

Madrid have two obstacles to overcome if they are to make that badge theirs. The first is a semi-final on 15 December against the winner of the tie between Asian champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors of Korea Republic and CONCACAF kings Club America of Mexico. Win that game and *Los Merengues *will be in the final three days later. “We’re Real Madrid and we want the title, come what may,” said Nacho, issuing a warning for their upcoming rivals.

Japan, the land where Raul came, saw and conquered all those years ago, is ready and waiting to welcome two more homegrown heroes anxious to follow in his footsteps.

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