Club Kiwi

The Club World Cup is underway in Morocco. Most soccer fans tend to pay the Club World Cup little attention. As a competition that brings together all six continental champions, it technically decides the world champion of the club game. However, many fans- the European fans especially- view this as unnecessary and silly, because they consider the European champions to be, by permanent default, the automatic world champions. After all, the top talent always funnels into Europe, doesn’t it? It makes sense. Why bother even holding it, really?

Personally, I don’t think it’s that simple. First off, in the Club World Cup era- the era from 2000 on- there have been ten competitions. Europe has only won six of them. A majority, yes, but hardly domination given that the other four were won by South America, a continent that heavily supplies Europe with top talent and sometimes even manages to hang onto it. In the previous incarnation of the competition, the Intercontinental Cup– which only involved Europe and South America-, South America actually beat Europe 22-21. (Of course, one factor in this may have been the European champion flat-out refusing to play, leading to the European Cup runner-up taking the helm instead. When that happened, South America won 5 cups to Europe’s 1.) Europe may have the most famous, most expensive teams, and maybe they are the best.

But the thing about being the best in your sport is you don’t just get to rest on that laurel. There is always someone out there that thinks they can yank the title off of you, and you have to go on continually, constantly defending it. You never know when someone will. Especially in a sport with global reach such as soccer. There is an entire planet’s worth of talent out there, and it all wants to be the best. For all that Sepp Blatter has done wrong over the years, I believe that expanding things to involve all six continents was one thing he’s done right. For all the complaining Europe does about how having to play the other continents is irritating at best, for all the attempted minimizing they do of any game they lose to those other continents about how they weren’t going all-out because of how silly the whole affair is, this isn’t really about what Europe wants. It’s about giving everybody else a fair shot at Europe. It’s about getting Europe, or at least their representative, to go out and defend the realm. It’s about giving clubs on the other five continents a concrete carrot on a stick: win your continental title and you could get a free shot at Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or whoever it is Europe sent this year.

And if they convert on that free shot and manage to become the last team standing? Well, guess who’s world champion.

There’s a club in Tanzania, haven’t heard much from them in a while but they picked up some human-interest-story press a few years back, called Albino United. Last I saw, they were in the third tier. The club, playing in unkempt clearings wearing ill-fitting clothes, exists chiefly as a method of proving the team’s mere humanity. Albinos are not considered as such by many in Tanzania. Instead, they are viewed as spare parts, commodities to be killed, chopped into pieces, and their individual body parts made into lucky charms and talismans by witch doctors and sold to all manner of the citizenry. By forming a club, the players, even though they must play at night so that their skin isn’t burned by the midday sun, prove that they are just as human as the other team on the pitch. Or at least, that’s the hope.

In only five years, even a club as small and with goals as humble as theirs can, theoretically, become world champions, because the structure of soccer permits it. The first three years would get spent working their way up the Tanzanian pyramid, the fourth, should they win a league title, would be spent fighting through the CAF Champions League, and if they won that, the fifth year would feature a date with the other continental champions in the Club World Cup. And if they somehow won that too, this little club of players just trying to prove that they’re human would become world champions, the only team left to drip through an incomprehensibly massive global funnel.

Is it likely? Oh Jesus no. I wouldn’t bet a penny on it because I don’t want to lose my penny. But however unlikely their odds, even if it’s one in a billion, those odds are not zero. The system allows for it in a way that other team sports do not, in part because soccer doesn’t have any one league that is taken for granted as the world’s perpetual best. The NHL is known as the best hockey league, the NBA is known as the best basketball league, MLB is known as the best baseball league. In soccer, it’s an open question, and because it’s an open question, all the national leagues battle each other for positioning. Maybe La Liga is the best one year, but maybe the Bundesliga or English Premier League or Serie A will be the best next year, and all manner of leagues below fight for every scrap of recognition they can get. The J-League, A-League, Liga MX and MLS fight to rise through the ranks, while Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie struggle to keep from falling behind. They all want their shot, and through the Club World Cup, they all get it. And Europe aside, they all relish the opportunity.

Converting that shot, though, is another matter. Which brings us to the club to which the Club World Cup means more than probably any other on the planet, New Zealand’s Auckland City. They’ve been to more Club World Cups than anyone else, attending for the sixth time this year as champions of Oceania, and the fourth consecutive time. But as the representatives of the weakest confederation, the OFC, and as an amateur team, they’re prone to taking the most ridicule, and their status led in 2007 to the tournament taking its current form: the Oceania champions play the league champion of the host nation in the first round, then Africa, Asia and North America enter in the next round, with Europe and South America handed byes to the semifinals. Because Oceania- because Auckland City- is so far behind in status compared to the champions of the other continents, they have to play an extra game, against the host nation (or the next team down in the continent, if the host has already qualified), just so that the locals will stay interested.

When Auckland City- or their local rivals Waitakere United, with two appearances of their own- have shown up, results have pretty much borne that out.

*In 2006, Auckland lost 2-0 to Egypt’s Al-Ahly, then lost 3-0 to South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
*In 2007, Waitakere lost 3-1 to Iran’s Sepahan.
*In 2008, Waitakere lost 1-0 to Australia’s Adelaide United.
*In 2009, Auckland recorded their first win, 1-0 against host UAE’s Al-Ahli, but then lost 3-0 to Mexico’s Atlante and 2-0 to DR Congo’s TP Mazembe.
*In 2011, Auckland lost 2-0 to host Japan’s Kawisha Reysol.
*In 2012, Auckland lost 1-0 to host Japan’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
*In 2013, Auckland lost 2-1 to host Morocco’s Raja Casablanca.

But then there’s this year. In the opening round, Auckland City survived a 4-3 penalty shootout to defeat host Morocco’s Moghreb Tetouan, which all by itself was enough to cause the resignation of Moghreb’s manager. In Round 2, Auckland then upended Africa’s actual champions, Algeria’s ES Setif, 1-0, setting up a date with Argentina’s San Lorenzo on Wednesday. (The other semifinal features Real Madrid and Mexico’s Cruz Azul, who defeated Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1 in the other Round 2 match.)

By getting this far, Auckland City will be dealing with something that any of the other clubs in the competition might deem more or less inconsequential: the prize money. The winning club will receive $5 million US. For Real Madrid, a club whose weekly payroll, at least as of last month, comes out somewhere in the $2.6 million range, this is a laughable prize. For Auckland, even the lesser prizes are crucial. Even though they’re an amateur club, or maybe because they are, the expense of competing overseas can eat into finances quickly, as the club has to secure the ability of their players to be away from their day jobs for the length of the tournament, not to mention the costs of travel. The agreement in New Zealand is that half of the money any of their clubs earns in the Club World Cup goes straight to the national federation and split evenly between all the clubs in the top flight. After that, the combined costs of competing in the OFC Champions League that serves as qualifying for the Club World Cup, and setting up camp in Morocco, comes out to somewhere in the $200,000 range. That doesn’t include flying out for the pre-tournament festivities- including the draw which to Auckland is almost superficial because they already know who they’re playing in the first round, which most of the time is their only round- or any unexpected costs of travel, such as added costs for baggage. In addition, should they manage to advance, that means their players will be away from their jobs longer, meaning Auckland sometimes has to pay off their employers so the players don’t get fired.

If Auckland were to lose their first game, they’d have collected $500,000. They would have more or less broke even. Last year, when the airline charged them extra for baggage, they actually lost money, a near-crippling amount in fact. Having gotten to their current point in the tournament, they’ve assured themselves of at least $2 million. If they somehow manage to beat San Lorenzo too, that prize will double.

Auckland’s goals run deeper than purely the money, though. There’s a reason that the best club Oceania has to offer is an amateur team. Oceania’s sport is not soccer. It’s rugby. New Zealand’s rugby team is world-renowned. Cricket comes second, where New Zealand is also competitive, even if they don’t win very many trophies. Third would probably be netball, which since this is an American-based site, and since netball isn’t a thing in America, I should describe as ‘basketball without the backboard and without men’ (the sport’s governing body doesn’t even recognize men’s netball). Again, the national netball team is among the best on the planet, frequently challenging for honors. In soccer, New Zealand does not challenge for honors. Beating up on the likes of Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia is not sufficient, as their Oceanian bretheren are even less developed and sometimes barely have soccer programs at all. New Zealand is only even the best in Oceania because they inherited the title when Australia bolted for Asia in 2006 just to get decent competition. Kiwi sports fans want to see some winning, against quality opposition, and the national soccer team, the All Whites, is winless in its last nine matches.

This will not change over the course of a single one-off tournament. But defeating another continental champion, really any other continent, is enough to raise an eyebrow or two back home. And now it’s given them their shot at the big boys. San Lorenzo beckons, and while the odds are still long, should Auckland City win that too, chances are they’ll have Real Madrid right behind them, which is almost guaranteed to get New Zealand’s undivided attention, even if only for a day.

For Real Madrid, it would be little more than just another game, another motion to go through, another $5 million, another trophy for the pile, and another delusional opponent thinking it can stand against European might. For Auckland City, the moment would be priceless.

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