Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The six best

With Ahli's crowning as African champions, the line-up of the Club World Championship is complete. Inas Mazhar walks the road to Japan as it shortens by the day

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New continental champions, Ahli team, ready for the mission

The six teams to qualify for the knockout tournament scheduled from 11-18 December are Ahli of Egypt, Ittihad Jeddah of Saudi Arabia, Deportivo Saprissa of Costa Rica, Liverpool of England, Sao Paulo of Brazil and Sydney of Australia.

Ahli's 3-0 second leg defeat of Tunisia's Etoile de Sahel in the final of the African Champions League continued their amazing unbeaten streak that now stretches to 18 months, a statistic that makes them a serious contender for the world title. Under the leadership of Portuguese coach Manuel Jose and inspired by the performances of midfielder Mohamed Barakat, the Egyptian club have flourished.

But if the Red Devils are to strike more gold in the Far East then they must first overcome a formidable opponent in Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad in their opening match at the tournament on 11 December in Tokyo. The Jeddah giants have been equally awesome in their own Asian division, knocking out in devastating fashion all challengers to retain their mantle as Asia's No 1 team. The Tigers had already plundered the transfer market in the summer with the one-year loan acquisitions of Sierra Leone's Mohamed Kallon from Monaco and Cameroon's Joseph Desire Job from Middlesbrough, and although the heart of the side has a strong local beat, do not be surprised if more big names set sail for the Gulf ahead of the world finals. The Arab champions mean business.

Waiting for the winners in the semi-finals in Tokyo on 14 December are Copa Libertadores holders Sao Paulo. Breathtaking in their run to continental glory, the Tricolores', twice Toyota Cup champions (1992 and 1993), will be looking to add a third world title to their name and another strike for South America. The Brazilians, bolstered by the goalscoring abilities of keeper Rogerio Ceni and blessed by the presence of Cicinho and Grafite, are sure to be a team to watch.

Barely a year old, Oceania's champions Sydney are readying for their biggest day out. After a long unbeaten run, they have taken time to find their feet in the new Australian A-League but now up with the leaders, are hitting top form just at the right moment. Coached by German legend and former Yokohama FC boss Pierre Littbarski and including the iconic Kazu Miura, on-loan from Yokohama, the Australians should be able to draw on the support of locals in the quest for glory in Japan.

Meeting them in the quarter-finals in Toyota city on 12 December will be Costa Rica's Deportivo Saprissa. Led by former great Hernan Medford and spearheaded by the robust Ronald Gomez, the Purple Monster have devoured all before them so far in this year's championship and sit pretty at the top of the Tico table.

The winners of that battle must face European giants Liverpool in the last four in Yokohama on 15 December. The UEFA Champions League winners have gone from strength to strength in Europe since that memorable night in Istanbul back in May, and are well on course to reach this season's knockout stage. English backbone and a strong Spanish presence have blended well and their star-studded line up performed more heroics in the latest round of international matches.

The idea to hold a championship to decide the world's best team was dreamt up in the late 1950s. During those post-World War II years when sport was helping the world come together and soothe painful memories of conflict, football in Europe and South America continued its global dominance.

The World Cup, won by Brazil for the first (and only) time in Europe (Sweden) in 1958, was by then wildly popular and the contest between the contrasting styles of nations from Europe and South America was the talk of the day. So as competition club football grew up with the introduction of the European Cup (1955/5) and the Copa Libertadores (1960), it was only natural that the Intercontinental Cup should be a match between clubs from these two distant continents.

In fact it was Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu, whose Spanish side had won the first five editions of the new European tournament, to first propose staging a match to decide the best club side in the world. From then on there could be no arguments -- it would show once and for all who were the true champions of the world.

And during its initial years, the competition, a two-legged home-and-away affair, lived up to its grand billing with 120,000 packing the Santiago Bernabeu to watch Ferenc Puskas score its first goal as Real Madrid romped to a 5-1 return leg win in 1960. Losers became victors the following year as Uruguay's Penarol claimed the prize for South America before Pele's Santos thrillingly defeated Eusebio's Benfica and then AC Milan. The Italian club's city neighbours Internazionale won it back the following two years, 1964 and 1965, as the tournament proved to be as competitive and engaging as many had imagined.

But with so much riding on the matches, passions, on and off the pitch, had begun to get out of control by the late 1960s and while South American teams still viewed it as their ultimate club contest, European sides had largely come to regard the annual challenge as being more trouble that it was worth. Champions Ajax Amsterdam, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest did not represent the Old Continent during the 1970s, with no competition taking place at all in 1975 and 1978.

With the noble idea seemingly approaching a lingering death, Japan stepped in as saviours in 1980 offering to stage a one-off match, the Toyota Cup in Tokyo. Attracting largely neutral and enthusiastic spectators coupled with enhanced worldwide television coverage, the world club championship began afresh.

Uruguay's Nacional defeated Nottingham Forest in the first edition and although European sides would take a while to appreciate the sporting and commercial opportunities that the match represented in the changing football world, in time the Toyota Cup regained the prestige and competitiveness that the Intercontinental Cup had lost. By the time it was put to bed in 2004, European and South American teams had shared the laurels almost equally.

One thing was missing though -- a true world club tournament needed clubs from the whole world.

Continental club championships had long since kicked off in all confederations. First in the North, Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF) in 1962, then in Africa (CAF) in 1965, in Asia (AFC) in 1967, while Oceania (OFC) did not organise a tournament until 1999. World class stars were rapidly emerging from these new footballing lands but, unlike Pele in 1962, those top players were disallowed from being able to pit their wits against those from European and South American clubs because of the exclusivity of the championship.

With the drain of talent to the European leagues virtually unchecked, clubs in nations where the game was slowly developing came under tremendous strain to maintain their attraction to fans, sponsors and media. At the same time the spread of technology meant televised fixtures from Europe and South America's top leagues had penetrated almost every nation on Earth, only serving to intensify those growing pains.

With a century-old duty to protect the prosperity of the game throughout the planet, world football's governing body knew it had to do something to redress the balance. The idea to stage a global club competition pre-dated the ultimate Toyota Cup. Having seen the financial might of European club sides only increase at the end of the 20th century and with the goal of uniting and promoting the game fairly in the football world, FIFA had wrestled with the notion of including a multi- confederation club competition on the international match calendar for some time.

In January 2000 those plans were realised when eight teams contested the first FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil. The second tournament did not take place as scheduled though as discussions across the globe continued in order to reach a compromise between finding space in an already rich match calendar and upholding the principle of a viable club competition involving champions from each continent.

A solution was reached in 2004. The second FIFA Club World Championship would build on the foundations laid by the Toyota Cup with the six continental champions participating in a knockout tournament. The four newcomers will play-off for the right to face the seeded European and South American sides in the semi-finals.

This year, the Toyota Cup will be held in Tokyo, Toyota and Yokohama.

The National Stadium of Tokyo is situated in the heart of the capital. It is steeped in tradition having hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, the 1958 Asian Games and the 1971 World Track & Field Championships. Now coming up to its 50th birthday, the 60,000-capacity ground continues to host important football matches including the Emperor's Cup every year. Three matches during the tournament will be played here.

Although no club can call it home, two teams have played some matches here in the past. Tokyo FC, formerly Tokyo Gas, and Tokyo Verdy 1969.

Completed in 2001 to mark the city's 50th birthday, Toyota Stadium is a state-of-the-art football-specific ground complete with a retractable roof. Earmarked as one of Japan's venues for the 2002 World Cup, it was ultimately discarded from the final list of 10. With the capacity to hold 45,000 spectators close to the action, the ground is said to be a favourite among supporters and players alike. One of the group matches will be played here during the tournament.

Nagoya Grampus Eight Club, one of the founding members of the 12-team J-League in 1992, play many of their matches at the futuristic Toyota Stadium. Although the Toyota- sponsored club have not had great success in recent times, Grampus Eight, nicknamed the Noble Barbarians, can count Arsenal's French coach Arsene Wenger and former England striker Gary Lineker among the stars that have walked through their doors.

Completed in 1997 in readiness for the 2002 World Cup, the International Stadium Yokohama lies 6km to the north of the city centre. With a capacity of 72,370, it is the country's largest ground and was the setting of the last World Cup final between Brazil and Germany and hosted matches during the Confederations Cup in 2001. Although there is some distance between the stands and the pitch, the stadium has excellent facilities for television and will play host to three matches during the Club World Championship including the final.

Yokohama is considered one of Japan's more football friendly cities and until 1998 when the Flugels were forced by bankruptcy into joining crosstown rivals Marinos, the city was home to two popular J-League sides. Last season Yokohama F Marinos claimed their second successive title and are now in the running for the AFC Champions League which, if won, would give them home advantage at the Club World Championship.

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