Lets be honest, many of us could not care less about the FIFA Club World Cup. Furthermore, many don’t even know it is going to start today.
Nevertheless, (seeing as I get paid to write about it) here is my look at the two teams kicking off the tournament: Al Wahda and Hekari United.
However, you can read more about those taking part over the coming days and on the respecitve clubs above after the jump… (go on, I dare you)
Al Wahda in dreamland
“Obviously we still have to beat some tough opposition but the chance to play Inter Milan in Abu Dhabi would be a dream, not only for myself but also for my players.”
And who can blame Josef Hickersberger for dreaming?
The two-time manager of the Austrian national team has forged himself a lucrative career coaching across the Middle East, managing domestic teams in Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE and Qatar since first coaching in the region in 1995.
Hickersberger, who has also had two spells at the helm of the Bahrain national team, is now prepping himself for possibly his biggest challenge yet.
As manager he has enjoyed substantial domestic success, although leading Al Wahda to glory on home territory in the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup would gazump all his previous achievements.
Hickersberger led the Abu Dhabi-based side to their first UAE Football League crown in five years last season, before departing to take up the post as Bahraini national team manager earlier this year.
However, managerial failures at Al Wahda saw Hickersberger return to the Al-Nahyan Stadium in October faced with a difficult rebuilding job.
Hickersberger admitted that Al Wahda were “not the same team” he left four months previously and swiftly went about changing the mentality of his players in an attempt to push up the UFL and avoid embarrassment in the Club World Cup.
As well as several warm-up games, the Austrian took Al Wahda on a training camp to Egypt in a bid to strengthen team cohesion ahead of the tournament; something that he says was desperately needed.
“There are a lot of areas we need to work on and the best way is to get them out of all the distractions you find at home,” he said before the camp.
“At home, they have numerous problems like thinking of how to pick up and drop off their kids, someone in the family is not well, and so on.
“The club management has decided on a place where they would be comfortable and feel homely.
“For me, it doesn’t matter where we are travelling, as long as we have a good pitch to train on and the players are happy with the surroundings.”
Hickersberger knows his top players will have to be on form if Al Wahda are to stand any chance of progression in the competition.
The former Austria international has focused strongly on shoring up his ailing defence but will rely heavily on his attackers regaining the form they showed in his previous tenure at the club.
The Brazilian trio of Fernando Baiano, Magrao and Pinga were integral in Al Wahda’s capture of the UFL earlier this year, netting 30 goals between them and helping the side end the season with seven straight wins.
While Pinga has since moved onto Al-Ahli, the remaining Brazilian duo and local hero Ismail Matar create a threatening three-pronged attack for Al Wahda.
First up for the local side is a seemingly winnable game against Papua New Guinea side Hekari United, although Al Wahda will be keen not to come a cropper against the reigning Oceania champions like Al-Ahli did against Auckland in the previous edition.
After that Hickersberger and his troops face a tricky quarter-final tie with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma of South Korea, with victory setting up a date with Messrs Benitez, Eto’o and Zanetti at Zayed Sports City.
Such progression seems unlikely but should a clash with Inter Milan come to fruition, it will be proof that dreams can come true for even the wiliest old timer.
Hekari hoping rise continues
Few will have heard of Hekari United FC and even fewer would be able to claim such a meteoric rise.
Having been formed in 2003, the Papua New Guinea club have gone from amateur football to become continental champions in just seven years, thus earning a place at the FIFA Club World Cup.
And while Hekari have won all four editions of the National Soccer League since the competition’s formation in 2006, few would have expected such success to translate onto the continental stage.
After finishing fourth in their first tilt at the OFC O-League crown in 2009, Hekari’s policy of accruing the best players in the Pacific region paid dividends the following year as the side went onto create history.
More than 15,000 fans – believed to be a national record attendance – turned out to see the Port Moresby club defeat New Zealand side Waitakere United 3-0 on home soil.
And despite a 2-1 defeat in Auckland, Hekari secured a 4-2 aggregate victory to become the first team from outside Australia or New Zealand to win the Oceania crown.
“We have been together for a long time and the bond within the team is strong,” said manager Jerry Allen, the man behind Hekari’s success.
“We also have physical strength and good technique throughout the side.
“David Muta (the team’s captain and midfield fulcrum) is an important influence on and off the pitch and we also have a good mixture of pace and strength up front.
“But the OFC Champions League is a different prospect to the Club World Cup and we cannot expect the level to be the same.
“We have looked at improving the quality of our squad and brought in several new players from Fiji and we’re still looking for more. We’re still building our squad, but we’ll get there.”
As well as bringing in new talent, Allen has also been keen to pit his side against a higher calibre of opponents ahead of the trip to Abu Dhabi.
United went on a tour of northern Australia in July and have played three matches in the new O-League season, as well as partaking in several Papua New Guinea National Soccer League fixtures after its resumption in October.
Ahead of the opening game of the FIFA Club World Cup against Al Wahda, Allen has also drafted in South Africa-born Reaz Moorad as goalkeeping coach in a bid to strengthen the backline.
Moorad took up the position during a pre-season tour in September and will continue to tutor the club’s keepers in a bid to stop Al Wahda’s attacking talent, which includes Ismail Matar, Fernando Baiano and Hugo Henrique.
“We have seen in the past how some of the world’s strongest teams have suffered surprise losses to clubs with far less resources,” said Moorad.
“Hekari United may be a far less experienced team on the field but what it may lack in this area it makes up in passion and commitment.
“I think the match between Hekari United and Al Wahda will be a very physical game as both clubs strive to achieve their goal of reaching the second round.”
Allen knows overcoming the local hopefuls will be a tough ask.
“The standard of football in the UAE is higher than in Oceania and I think the same can be said of Asian football generally,” added the Solomon Islander.
“I think the main quality we must look for is concentration. I will emphasise to our players that discipline, patience and concentration can make all the difference.”
If Hekari can respond to their inspirational coach’s calls, then maybe the Club World Cup’s unknown quantity can secure another upset.
NB. If you actually read all of this tripe, then I tip my hat to you.