Even with a record ninth appearance at the Fifa Club World Cup about to get under way, Auckland City arrived in the UAE as enthusiastic and eager as ever.
“We love it,” Spanish manager Ramon Tribulietx says, sitting back in his Dubai hotel having not long completed the 17-hour flight from New Zealand. “Every year’s a little different and every year we feel that we’re going to do it. We’ve always competed well. It feels like our tournament in some respects having been here so many times. So very excited and very motivated.”
That excitement can be put to good use this week. Auckland kick off their ninth campaign on Wednesday, in the play-off with UAE champions Al Jazira at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain.
The Oceania champions still function as an amateur club – their operating budget pales in comparison to Jazira’s – and their squad, although vastly experienced, does not include a former Real Madrid midfielder in Lassana Diarra, a 2018 World Cup participant in Mbark Boussoufa, or a 2015 Asian Cup top scorer in Ali Mabkhout. Instead, star striker Emiliano Tade works in retail and prolific midfielder Ryan De Vries transports valeted cars between car lots across Auckland.
However, as Club World Cup stalwarts, Auckland represent a rather significant threat. Unlike Jazira, competing in the competition for the first time, they have been there, done it. Most notably, in 2014, when against all odds they finished third.
“It was incredible,” Tribulietx says. “For a team like us to reach that level, not only once but four times and to win a bronze medal. On paper it’s impossible. But the beauty of this game is it’s not impossible if you work really hard and do things well. Then sometimes the impossible happens.”
Auckland made it happen. Only once before past the first round – they defeated Dubai’s Al Ahli in the 2009 play-off - they defeated Moroccan hosts Moghreb Tetouan in the initial play-off, then African champions ES Setif on penalties in the quarters, before pushing Argentina’s San Lorenzo, the Copa Liberatdores holders, to extra time in the semi-finals.
Ultimately, Auckland lost 2-1, but they rebounded to beat Mexicans Cruz Azul, again on penalties, to take third.
The team returned to New Zealand, where rugby rules the sporting landscape, to be greeted by a huge crowd at the airport. It was reward for the effort they had given in Morocco.
AUCKLAND CITY'S PAST RECORD:
2006 – Lose opening play-off and then fifth-placed play-off to finish sixth
2009 – Win opening match but lose in quarter-final. Win fifth-placed play-off
2011 – Lose opening play-off
2012 – Lose opening play-off
2013 – Lose opening play-off
2014 – Win opening play-off and quarter-final but lose in semis. Win third-placed play-off
2015 – Lose opening play-off
2016 – Lose opening play-off
“We believed,” Tribulietx says. “Maybe there were a few things that got aligned. It’s not only tactical things, but also the mentality. The players need to believe we can play the way we normally play at home against these teams. We’ve done it many times, so now it’s a little easier to convince these guys. That’s what it takes, a lot of hard work. Nothing comes easy.”
Although expectations have been raised, Tribulietx recognises the size of the task that awaits his team this month. Get past Jazira, and Auckland face Urawa Red Diamonds, the recently crowned Asian champions. Win that, and Real Madrid are next up.
Yet in the build-up his focus has been, and remains, Jazira on Wednesday. His will not allow the mind to wander, forward to Zinedine Zidane or Cristiano Ronaldo, but perhaps back to that astonishing run three years ago.
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“The Club World Cup used to be seen as a bonus,” Tribulietx says. “But now we’ve been here so many times and after what we did in 2014 maybe some people may expect Auckland City to win. I don’t think it’s the case when you look at the dimension of our club and the dimension of Al Jazira - there’s a massive difference. That’s a reality.
“We’re focused only on making sure we compete like we have in the past, that we prepare as well as we can, we put out a good performance and see what happens. Also, with a strong mentality and the belief that we are a good team when it comes down to these tournaments.
“We’ve lost a lot of times unfortunately, but considering the dimension of our club we’ve done really well to reach to that standard of football. Last year we lost to Kashima Antlers in the 88th minute, they beat the South American champions 3-0 and took Real Madrid to extra time.
“When you consider that type of team and when you look at us you go: ‘wow, that was a massive effort from us’. That’s our history and this is what we are.”
Still, Tribulietx appears fired up for another go at creating history, although outwardly at least, he is concentrating solely on Jazira on Wednesday.
“Success is competing well,” he says. “Regardless of the result. We have to acknowledge who we are. I’m just focused on our performance: it needs to be competitive and very professional. And whatever happens, happens.”