“Mission Possible” read the giant tifo, but even that seemed a bit of a stretch.
Al Ain fans unfurled the huge banner at the beginning of their team’s semi-final against River Plate on Tuesday night, the “I” and the “M” crossed out for all the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium and the world to see, a nod to the size of the task but also that sometimes the outwardly impossible can indeed be overcome.
Then Al Ain overcame River Plate to reach the Fifa Club World Cup final. River Plate, the vaunted Argentines, the South American superpower, the 2018 Copa Libertadores champions, confirmed not more than a few days before they touched down in the UAE.
But the UAE champions delivered a shock, at the same time creating history. Carried forward by the force of their sheer will and determination, a little luck and more than a little quality, the host representatives succeeded on penalties for the second time in three matches. River were stunned. Al Ain had run right through them.
“We spoke in the changing room before,” said Caio afterwards, scorer of the equaliser that forced extra-time and the opening penalty in the shootout, the Brazilian who provided a constant thorn in Argentinian sides. “We’ll run until we die.”
And that’s almost what Al Ain have done. Against Team Wellington in the play-off that brought up the curtain on this Club World Cup, when they found themselves 3-0 down against the semi-professionals from New Zeland and, facing ignominy, dragged their way back into the tie.
Against Esperance de Tunis in the quarter-final, when they supplied easily one of the best performances in the club’s recent history to dispatch the African champions 3-0.
Against River, too, when they recovered from 2-1 down and their opponents’ first-half press and the creeping realisation that Mission Possible was probably a bit of a stretch after all.
Recovery is what they need now, too. Al Ain’s remarkable route to the final has been made all the more striking given that, by the time Caio placed the ball on the spot in the shootout against River, Zoran Mamic's men had played 330 minutes of football in six days.
Five and a half hours, from Wellington to Esperance and to River, each hurdle slightly higher, each climb exacting even more from already weary souls. Let’s not forget, the squad entered the tournament beset by a virus.
But as River manager Marcello Gallardo conceded close to midnight on Tuesday, after his side had become this year’s shock scalp, Al Ain showed they “deserve to play at this level”. In particular, he highlighted their “enthusiasm”, their vim and their vigour.
That said, it must all have taken its toll. The swelling highs of each victory, the ever-depleting energy levels, for the players are only human. Surely there is only so far adrenaline alone can carry them. Presumably, many are running solely on fumes now.
Speaking after the semi-final, Marcus Berg said he left the pitch on 75 minutes because he could barely walk, the effects of the virus still felt. Berg was one of the worst affected, limiting Al Ain’s star striker to cameo appearances in the opening two matches.
Now, Al Ain have one more to go, one more gargantuan effort to give. On Saturday, they face Real Madrid in the final, another rung up the ladder from River, easily the greatest test in the club’s 50 years of being.
The two-time defending champions. Winners of the Uefa Champions League the past three years. Madrid have 13 European Cups in all. Al Ain have 13 domestic titles.
Then again, as Al Ain and this tournament have already conveyed, football is not always straightforward. It is what makes goalkeeper Khalid Essa, at the moment the player of the Club World Cup, determined to “give everything to fight for the title”.
It is why he has urged Al Ain to “aim as high as possible”, no matter that Gareth Bale and Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos stand between them and unlikely glory.
Mission Impossible it may seem, truly, this time. Yet why stop at that, when what has come before has already stretched the boundaries of the believable?