Diego Forlan: Why River Plate can spring a surprise on Barcelona in the Club World Cup final

In his weekly column, Diego Forlan explains the importance of the Club World Cup to South American clubs and shares his own memories of the competition.

River Plate forward Lucas Alario (lower) celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning goal against Sanfrecce Hiroshima during their Club World Cup semi-final football match in Osaka on December 16, 2015. AFP PHOTO / KAZUHIRO NOGI
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Diego Forlan writes a weekly column for The National, appearing each Friday. The former Manchester United, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid striker has been the top scorer in Europe twice and won the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. Forlan’s column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

The Club World Cup, being played this week in Japan, is a far bigger deal in South America than it is in Europe. I can remember getting up in the middle of the night to watch my team Penarol lose against Porto in the 1987 Intercontinental Cup — effectively a forerunner to the tournament. I was upset when we lost 2-1 after extra time in Tokyo.

My dad had won the competition with Penarol, beating Real Madrid in 1966. It’s a source of great pride in the family. That final was played over two legs and dad’s team won 4-0 at home and lost 2-0 in Madrid. It was revenge for the same game in 1960.

Penarol have been world champions three times and we’re hoping to make it four — if we win the Copa Libertadores next season to reach the Club World Cup. That would be a nice trophy at a late stage in my career, but that’s a long way off — both the cup and me finishing!

The Argentine side River Plate are the current South American champions. Penarol have had some great battles with them in the past. They’re known as “Gallinas” — the chickens — to us. That goes back to 1966 when dad played for Penarol in the Libertadores final. Penarol won 2-0 in the home leg and lost the away leg 3-2. Now, away goals would count. Then, a third play-off game was required.

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The game was held in Santiago, Chile. River led 2-0 at half time. They thought they had won and started to get a little fancy with Penarol. Their goalkeeper showboated and saved one shot with his chest when his hands would have been fine. The Penarol players thought this was disrespectful. This spurred them on and they scored twice to take the game to extra time. Then Penarol scored another two in extra time to become champions. River bottled it.

The current River side are a good team, the best in South America with an excellent young manager. Marcelo Gallardo. He played for Argentina, River Plate and then Monaco in Europe, plus Nacional, the rival team to my Penarol in Uruguay. He started his managerial career at Nacional and joined River last year. He’s been a big success, the first person from River to win the Copa Libertadores as a player and manager.

The Uruguayan influence is also found in forward Rodrigo Moura up front. Leonardo Pisculichi is another top player, an attacking midfielder. Javier Saviola is well known and could come up against his old team Barcelona, but he’s 34 now and doesn’t play every game.

Another midfielder, Matias Kranevitter is 22 and on loan from Atletico Madrid. Lucho Gonzalez, 34, is an experienced player who used to be at Porto and Marseille. Other players will be hoping to do what he did — impress, earn a big move to Europe and then, one day return to Argentina.

Lots of players do it, sometimes returning to their first love. It works fine if the player is in good shape. It doesn’t work so well if the player hasn’t maintained his fitness and the fans expect him to be something like the player he once was.

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River reached Sunday’s final after beating Sanfrecce Hiroshima in Osaka — the stadium I played my football at until earlier this year.

The South American champions will face Barcelona in the final after the European champions defeated Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande in Thursday’s other semi-final.

There will be far more travelling fans in Japan supporting River than Barca, just as there were far more Corinthian fans than Chelsea two years ago. Fans sell their cars, they do everything to go, it’s an incredible movement.

Most of my former clubs have been world champions — though not with me. I joined Inter Milan a year after they had won it in Abu Dhabi. It was a big deal, though they used to joke with me because my Atletico Madrid team stopped them winning all six trophies by taking the European Super Cup. I played up front with Sergio Aguero that night and we won 2-0.

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Another former team, Internacionale of Porto Alegre, beat Barca to win it in 2006. That was a huge deal and you still see signs around Porto Alegre celebrating the victory. They knew that if they played Barcelona 10 times they would probably lose eight, win one and draw one, but in a one-off game the South American teams have a chance.

River know Barca are the best team in the world, they know it’s David against Goliath, but the players will be shaking jet lag off, they’ll be on an unfamiliar pitch in an unfamiliar stadium. The potential is there for a surprise. And if you win that game, you can call yourself the best in the world. There’s nothing subjective about it — like there is when people compare which players are the best. It’s one game and the winners are world champions.

The format suits the South American teams better than a league, but it will still be very, very hard for them to beat Barca and be crowned world champions.

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