Auckland City’s continental hegemony will again come under challenge over the coming fortnight as 12 teams gather in New Zealand for the OFC Champions League. Auckland’s domination in Oceania has been nothing short of remarkable with the Navy Blues winning seven of the past ten titles, including the past five consecutively.
Another win would outstrip Real Madrid’s long-standing tally set in 1960 for the most consecutive continental titles. The semi-amateur Oceania competition is of course a world away in every sense from Europe’s elite competition, but Auckland’s record nevertheless demonstrates the rare nature of their achievement.
The victor over the 16-day event in Auckland will represent Oceania at this year’s FIFA Club World Cup in Japan. It is a tournament in which Auckland have excelled, given their modest resources by world standards. Most memorably they pushed South America's San Lorenzo throughout a tense period of extra time two years ago, where an unthinkable match-up against Real Madrid in the final loomed. That run to third place at Morocco 2014 will stand the test of time as a Club World Cup fairytale.
But football matches are not of course, decided by reputation, and Auckland knows this better than anyone. Club stalwart Ivan Vicelich, winner of the adidas Bronze Ball at Morocco 2014, is still on the squad roster and looking as lean as ever at 39, though a run of injuries means he is unlikely to feature over the coming fortnight. Now assisting highly successful coach Ramon Tribulietx, Vicelich says focus and ambition have been a recurring theme in the Navy Blues’ camp.
“The important thing for us is to understand that just because we wear the Auckland City badge, it doesn’t mean we are going to win games,” Vicelich told FIFA.com. “We have to give blood, sweat and tears for the shirt, for the club and for the supporters. It will be a long and difficult road, and that is something we have emphasised this week.”
And Vicelich says that the Club World Cup is a rich reward on offer for all 12 competing clubs, who represent eight different nations. “The Club World Cup is a great tournament and gives every player in the world a chance to play on the international scene,” he said. “For some players it might be the only chance in a lifetime. At Auckland City we have some very good memories, and we know how great that tournament can be, so it is a great incentive for all the players in the tournament.”
Challengers eye Navy Blues’ crown
Auckland went 29 matches undefeated in their domestic competition only to lose the season decider against fellow Champions League participants Team Wellington earlier this year. And the Navy Blues will face a significant challenge in the group stage which commences on Friday. Only the three group winners and best runner-up will survive a cut-throat group stage. Among those opposing Auckland City in Group A are Sunday’s opponents Solomon Warriors, a side headlined by Solomon Islands’ long-term poster-boy Henry Fa’Arodo. Debutants Lae City Warriors, who boast numerous Papua New Guinea internationals, and an Amicale side littered with international recruits, will ensure Auckland have little margin for error.
Group B is headlined by New Zealand aspirants Team Wellington and former winners Hekari United. The latter, along with Lae City Dwellers, will come under the watchful eye of new PNG coach Flemming Serritslev, who will be in New Zealand to gather more information on his personnel ahead of next month’s FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers. The group also comprises Fiji’s Suva, and the tournament’s second debutant – AS Lossi of New Caledonia.
A sprinkling of the continent's better known players is a thread which runs through Group C. Few have been on the Oceanian scene longer than inventive former New Caledonia midfielder Pierre Wajoka. His AS Magenta side will open against Samoan outsiders Kiwi FC, who qualified via the four-team preliminary stage last year. Kiwi have, however, recruited strongly under national team coach Phineas Young, and their roster includes feisty Samoa skipper Desmond Faaiuaso. Nadi are also in the group as Fiji’s other representative. Meanwhile Tahiti’s AS Tefana will be a strong outside bet for success following a dominant domestic campaign, and with a side led by former Tahiti captain Nicolas Vallar, plus several other Toa Aito colleagues that charmed the world at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.