Auckland City’s Ivan Vicelich is one of the all-time veterans of the FIFA Club World Cup, having played at a staggering five editions. Despite initially hanging up his boots at the start of the season, the 40-year-old has been sensationally drafted into the Navy Blues’ squad as a late replacement for the injured Yousif Al-Khalisy, assuming the role of player-assistant coach.
Although unlikely to play in Japan this year, it still remains a possibility that New Zealand’s most-capped player could feature for Ramon Tribulietx’s side, in what would likely be his last tournament.
It would be a dramatic return to the competition for the defender, whose last appearance saw him claim the adidas Bronze Ball, next to Golden and Silver Ball winners Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, after captaining the semi-professional minnows to a stunning third-place finish against the odds in Morocco.
"2014 was one of the biggest accomplishments in New Zealand sporting history, never mind football,” Vicelich told FIFA.com. “For a club of our size to finish with a bronze medal was an unbelievable achievement. It was outstanding for the team and club but, for me personally, to win the bronze ball topped it all off. That was a run only made possible because of our unity and collective strength.
"We went on to have an incredible season to win the league, OFC Champions League, OFC President's Cup and qualify for Japan. It showed us that professionalism can be an attitude and just why the FIFA Club World Cup is important to our club and the game in general.
"We would love to repeat the feat but know that before we can do that our focus must be entirely on the job in front of us. The J.League winners are always well-drilled, technically efficient and quick. Its a big challenge."
After the extreme high of seeing off CONCACAF Champions League winners Cruz Azul on penalties to finish third in Morocco in 2014, Auckland were brought back to earth the following year, falling at the first hurdle in Japan. The New Zealand side found themselves on the end of a 2-0 defeat against J.League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, abruptly ending their 2015 odyssey in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“It’s always difficult to get the right result in the first match, especially when it’s in Japan,” said Vicelich, who watched the defeat from the dugout. “The J.League champions are crowned a week before we meet them and they represent a country that has one of the best leagues in the world.
"I thought we did really well last year. We dominated possession but couldn't get a breakthrough and, in the end, we were beaten by a very good Sanfrecce Hiroshima side who played a great counter attack.
"But we were in the game, we weren't just hanging on. That gives us encouragement for this year because we've strengthened our squad again and we hope that can help better our chances of pulling off a shock result.”
After a career that saw him claim six OFC Champions Leagues, play in three FIFA Confederations Cups and at one FIFA World Cup™, Vicelich made the decision to take a step back from playing football at the beginning of the season. Citing injury problems, the 88-time New Zealand international has been able to concentrate on his assistant manager's role this campaign, as he looks to begin his new chapter solely on the sidelines.
"I struggled to get back to 100 per cent full fitness and niggles were taking a lot longer to get over,” said Vicelich. "It can be very frustrating because your influence is totally different as a coach than as a player. You're hoping the players have taken on board what they've been instructed to do and so it’s a great learning curve that I'm at the start of.”
Although relishing his role from the dugout, there is still a chance that the evergreen defender could lace up his boots and grace the Club World Cup for one last time in Japan.