FIFA is keeping its fingers crossed that the Club World Championship captures the imagination of fans in Japan and around the world when it kicks off on Sunday.
The six-team tournament begins at Tokyo’s National Stadium when Asian champion Al Ittihad takes on African champion Al Ahly in an Arab derby hugely anticipated in the Middle East.
But it won’t be until UEFA champion Liverpool and South American title holder Sao Paulo join the tournament at the semifinals stage that the world’s eyes will turn to Japan.
And FIFA will be praying there are no hiccups in either side’s progress to the soldout final in Yokohama on Dec. 18.
FIFA will be reassured by Liverpool and Sao Paulo both bringing full-strength squads, and by their current form.
Liverpool has kept nine consecutive clean sheets, and had a chance to equal a club-record 10 against Middlesbrough on Saturday night in their final Premier League game before flying to Tokyo.
Sao Paulo arrived on Wednesday, one week before its first game, but Liverpool arrives on Monday and concerns have been raised that the Reds will suffer from the effects of jet lag.
Sao Paulo coach Paulo Autuori, however, dismissed such suggestions.
“A team like Liverpool is not going to be disadvantaged under any circumstances,” he said on Friday.
A clogged fixture list is to blame for Liverpool cutting it fine, but captain Steven Gerrard left no doubts as to how serious Liverpool is treating the competition.
“As a footballer, you want to win every game you play in and this is a unique opportunity for us to become world champions,” he told FIFA.com.
“We believe that winning could provide a real confidence boost for the rest of the season,” he said.
Liverpool plays the winner of the Sydney FC-Deportivo Saprissa game, with Sao Paulo taking on either Al Ahly or Al Ittihad.
Sao Paulo coach Artuori said his team’s preparations have run like clockwork.
“Physically, as well as mentally and tactically, we are ready to win the two games that will bring us the championship,” coach Autuori told reporters.
Sao Paulo won the Toyota Cup — the Club World Championship’s predecessor — in 1992 and 1993.
Liverpool has fared less well in the past, losing to Brazil’s Flamengo in the 1981 final and Argentina’s Independiente in ’84.
Both teams’ glittering histories set them up for a mighty fall against the tournament’s lesser lights, all presenting danger in their own way.
Canny Oceania champion Sydney FC guaranteed the crowd will be on its side no matter what after signing Japan legend Kazuyoshi Miura on a short-term loan deal.
The A-League side is coached by German Pierre Littbarski, who spent time as a player and coach in the J. League, and its dangerman is ex-Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke.
Central American champion Deportivo Saprissa is a more unknown quantity, but the Costa Ricans have been together a lot longer than the one year Sydney has been in existence, and with head coach and national treasure Hernan Medford leading the way, it will be looking to assert its authority on the “youngsters” of the tournament.
But it’s perhaps Egypt’s Al Ahly and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad who pose the biggest threat to Liverpool and Sao Paulo.
Al Ahly is currently 55 games undefeated — a world record run that started in July 2004 — and in Manuel Jose it has a coach who believes he has the strategy to get past Ittihad.
“We have a secret — we play a risk system, 3-4-3, and we play to win all matches against all,” he said.
FIFA confirmed Saturday that three players from Ittihad have been ruled ineligible for the tournament.
Brazilians Pedro Paulo, Marco Alberto Skavinki and Aparecido Lima were ruled out after it was found out they weren’t registered by the Saudis in time.
Ahly had earlier ruffled Ittihad’s feathers when it accused the Saudis of bringing unregistered players to the tournament, a charge Ittihad coach Anghel Iordanescu had brushed off.
“It’s a psychological ploy. Al Ahly is trying to disturb us,” Iordanescu said.
The Club World Championship competition derives originally from the old Intercontinental Cup, a two-legged game between the European and South American champions.
The Toyota Cup in Japan replaced this in 1980, the match becoming a one-off game between the champions.
But with soccer’s burgeoning popularity around the world, FIFA’S aim was to create an annual tournament that would recognize the “real” world club champion by allowing teams from other continents to enter.
FIFA staged the inaugural Club World Championship in Brazil in 2000, with local team Corinthians the winner, but the tournament was put on the back burner after marketing partner ISMM/ISL went bankrupt.
Clubs juggling busy playing schedules and the ISMM/ISL debacle saw a return to the Toyota Cup for the next four years.
Next year’s Club World Championship will again be in Japan, from Dec. 10-17. The future after that is less clear, although FIFA will be be hoping it turns into a presitigious annual tournament.
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