Al Ain Club
Al Ain Club celebrate their Asian Champions League victory Image Credit: Al Ain

Being crowned continental champions is no easy feat.

European giants Arsenal, Paris Saint Germain and Roma have failed to win the UEFA Champions League in their storied history, while Lionel Messi’s former club, Newell’s Old Boys, have never conquered South America’s Copa Libertadores.

The list of heavyweights to not get their hands on continental silverware goes on and on, which really puts into perspective the magnitude of Al Ain Club’s second victory in the Asian Champions League on Saturday evening.

The Garden City was rocking after ‘Al Zaeem’ overturned their first leg defeat with a 5-1 hammering of Yokohama F Marinos at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium to win the final 6-3 on aggregate.

The victory, which came 21 years after the club won the inaugural rebranded Asian Champions League, saw them bank $4m while also guaranteeing their spot in the revamped AFC Champions League Elite next season.

But perhaps the biggest prize of all comes in the form of sealing a place in the inaugural 32-team FIFA Club World Cup, which will be played from 15 June to 13 July next year in the United States.

The new-look competition, officially known as Mundial de Clubes FIFA, will welcome a total of 32 teams from six different federations across the globe, with UEFA receiving 12 slots, while CONMEBOL boasts six places at the tournament.

The AFC, CAF, CONCACAF would ordinarily have four teams represented apeice, but the latter avails one extra slot in 2025 due to hosting duties. Finally, the OFC, takes the final slot.

Saudi Arabian giants Al Hilal SFC, South Korea’s Ulsan HD FC and Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds will join Al Ain as the Asian representatives in the tournament.

They will come up against the likes of 2023 CONMEBOL Libertadores champions Fluminense FC, Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly SC, 2023 Concacaf Champions Cup winners Club León and Oceania’s Auckland City FC.

But it’s the European representatives that will really whet the appetite of the Ainawi making the long flight from the UAE to the States.

What is the tournament format of the FIFA Club World Cup?
The competition will follow the same format as the 2022 FIFA World Cup, with the exception that there will be no play-off for third place. The tournament begins with a group stage composed of eight groups of four teams per group playing in a single-game round-robin format, with the top two teams per group progressing to the round of 16. A direct single-match knockout stage from the round of 16 to the final will then determine the champion of the FIFA Club World Cup.

Fourteen-time UEFA Champions League winners Real Madrid are the pick of the bunch, while Manchester City, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Milan, Benfica, Porto, Borussia Dortmund, Athletico Madrid, Juventus and FC Salzburg have all secured their place.

Al Ain going head-to-head against the European elite is a mouth-watering prospect and one that manager Hernan Crespo will no doubt savour having played for both Inter Milan and Chelsea in his hugely successful career.

The players will also be licking their lips at the opportunity to share a pitch with some of the game’s finest players, including Kylian Mbappe, Jude Bellingham, Erling Haaland and Harry Kane.

While Al Ain Club will be one of the underdogs in the tournament, the European heavyweights would be foolish to think they’ll walk over the Asian champions.

The Garden City club have already shown this campaign they can upset the odds, defeating Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr in the quarter final before ending Al Hilal’s record-breaking run of 34 consecutive wins in the semi-final.

They also have history on their side, with the club just one of two Asian representatives to reach the final of FIFA’s premier club competition back in 2018, which then featured seven teams.

Al Ain defeated Team Wellington, Espérance de Tunis and River Plate before succumbing to Real Madrid in the final at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

With Asian Champions League top scorer and MVP Soufiane Rahimi leading the line, Al Ain will fancy their chances against anybody right now.

But whatever happens in the U.S., Al Ain’s name will forever be etched in history as the first club from the UAE to represent the country in the revamped FIFA Club World Cup.