The story behind the little club that could
Auckland City may only boast modest fame in global terms, but few clubs surpass the New Zealanders for success taking into account the relative resources at hand. The Navy Blues have been dominant at club and continental level winning six national titles in the past 11 years, and seven OFC Champions League crowns in just ten years.
Most significant of all, however, is their achievements on the world stage. The Aucklanders are set to feature in their seventh FIFA Club World Cup this December – more than any other side. They have won five of their 12 matches, three of which came last year, including two on penalties. Auckland City’s run at Morocco 2014 saw them go all the way to the semi-finals where they pushed South American champions San Lorenzo to the brink during extra time, before falling narrowly shy of an almost unimaginable match-up against Real Madrid.
It is an incredible achievement considering the club is comprised of amateur players, most of whom spend their days in a variety of nine-to-five jobs, before heading to training. That in itself is an unthinkable prospect for the headline names who feature annually at the Club World Cup, yet somehow Auckland not only competes alongside the world’s best, but invariably find a way to be successful.
We like to dream and we believe in what might be possible.
So how does such a modestly resourced club consistently thrive under such circumstances? “There is a very strong sense of camaraderie at the club, and that comes from the board down,” club chairman Ivan Vuksich told FIFA.com. “We are a family type club, where players feel comfortable. There is a lot of respect both ways, and it is starting to show that if you have good things, and a good system, it rubs off.
“We make sure we have a weekly team dinner, including supporters. So they are all mates, and there is a lot of fun had as well. They are small things, but all those things can add up to be something important.”
Long and rich history The club’s lineage dates back some 50 years when it was formed by a group of Croatian migrants. Based in the inner suburbs of New Zealand’s largest city, Central United were a prominent club for many years, however the franchise system adopted for the new national league in 2004 saw Auckland City created as a separate entity.
Most of the club’s founders came from Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, including the grandparents of the club’s seemingly ageless skipper Ivan Vicelich. “(Those migrants) had come to New Zealand and just wanted to somewhere to play,” said Vuksich, himself a third-generation New Zealander of Croatian heritage. “Over the years that Croatian influence really dwindled off and probably now just five per cent of its members are probably Croatian. Now we would be one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse clubs in the country.”
Building values and dreams While Auckland City compete in the summer-based national league, Central United - whose emblem features the distinctive Croatian red and white checks - still field teams in local competition during the winter months. There is an unshakable connection between the pair who share coaches and philosophy. While the Croatian connection may have dimmed, a Spanish flavour has permeated through the club over the past five years, and been a key component of the club’s success.
“Our first FIFA Club World Cup was a huge eye opener for us, where we used to play very much a long-ball game,” explains Vuksich. “We quickly realised when we went to our first tournament in Japan (in 2006) that it is not only embarrassing, but you are not going to win playing like that. We reviewed our philosophy and moved to a possession-based game. It takes a lot of time to perfect, and you need certain types of players.
“When we won two games at Abu Dhabi in 2009, we started to realise that our system could actually work. You have to believe in something and persevere. It is finally starting to really bear fruit.”
The Navy Blues’ Barcelona born and raised coach Ramon Tribulietx has proved a perfect fit for the club’s values, and several Spanish players have also found success at the Navy Blues. “Ramon has proven very good at implementing that system, and we try to play the same system at Central United, and hopefully we can keep bringing these players through who are comfortable with that. Ramon is very much a believer in the philosophy, having been brought up on that.”
This week Auckland found out the obstacles which stand between them and repeat success at the end of the year, with the club drawn against either the J.League champions or the AFC Champions League runners-up. “Last year in Morocco was an incredible result for us,” said Vuksich. “It was way beyond anyone’s imagination. But we like to dream and we believe in what might be possible.”