So, soccer fans, are you ready for Gamba Osaka vs. LDU Quito in the final of the “FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008 presented by Toyota” (official title)? Or will it be Pachuca vs. Waitakere?
There are seven teams contesting the championship, which runs Dec 11-21, but only two are meant to get to the finals: the champions of Europe and the champions of South America. Of course, no one at FIFA would officially endorse that statement and, who knows, it could be proved wrong.
The Club World Cup in its present form replaced the Toyota Cup, which itself was a renamed version of the European/South American Cup. In the past, the tournament was only contested by the champions of Europe and South America, and the winners invariably proclaimed themselves champions of the world. This ended in 2005, when FIFA opted to create a true Club World Cup by involving the champions of all six confederations, plus a representative from Japan, er, the host country. Japan has hosted every match since the championship moved to a single-leg final and became the Toyota Cup in 1980. That will change next year, when the tournament moves to the United Arab Emirates, although apparently it’s going to return to these shores in a year or two.
Unusually, there is no host country representative as such this year, as Gamba Osaka qualified by winning the Asian Champions League. Under the current format, if a host country team qualifies on merit, the runner-up in the host confederation’s club championship (in this case, Adelaide United of Australia) will get in and play a first-round match against the champions of Oceania (New Zealand’s Waikatere), deemed to be the weakest team in the tournament (though FIFA won’t say that, either).
The second round brings the champions of Africa and CONCACAF (North/Central America and the Caribbean) together in the top half of the draw, so Mexico’s Pachuca will meet Al Ahly of Egypt. Meanwhile, the winner of the first-round match will face Gamba Osaka.
For many, the real action starts in the semifinals, when the champions of Europe (Manchester United) and South America (LDU Quito) enter the competition. Ecuador’s LDU, surprise winners of the Libertadores Cup, will face the champions of Africa or CONCACAF on Dec 17 at Tokyo’s National Stadium, while Gamba is the favorite to meet Manchester United on Dec 18 at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama.
After an impressive run in the Asian Champions League, Gamba is looking forward to a semifinal matchup against Man U. To get that far, the Osaka club will have to beat either Waikatere or Adelaide United, the team it thrashed 5-0 in the final of the ACL. That shouldn’t be any problem, and for their part, Manchester United (favorites to win the tournament) shouldn’t be troubled by Gamba. European teams don’t appreciate coming all the way to Tokyo for the Cup, but it does carry sufficient prestige to make them want to win it. And with World Player of the Year Ronaldo in the lineup, United will be the focus of attention during the tournament.
But a word of warning: sometimes the Libertadores Cup throws up teams that Europeans have never heard of and, perhaps, don’t take as seriously as they should. Who would have put money on Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield beating AC Milan in 1994? Not many, but they dominated the game, just as Sao Paulo had done in 1992 and 1993 (against Barcelona and AC Milan, respectively). The winners of the Libertadores Cup are never pushovers, and LDU could spring a surprise by beating, er, Gamba in the final.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today