Abu Dhabi: The Fifa Club World Cup got under way last night with great fanfare with local giants Al Ain taking on New Zealand’s Wellington in the key play-off encounter at the spectacular Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium on Wednesday.
The showpiece event to decide the best club side in the world — the six continental champions take part along with hosts Al Ain — officially began with the unveiling of giant club crests of the participating teams and the Club World Cup logo. More than 100 children from local schools and football academies from the UAE took part in the opening ceremony.
The seven teams competing for the trophy include the champions from the six Fifa confederations and the Arabian Gulf League (AGL) champions.
Collectively, the seven teams have won 309 major trophies including national league and cup titles, continental competitions, and past editions of the Fifa Club World Cup and its predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup.
Nicknamed The Boss, Al Ain qualified for the tournament following their own historic 2017-18 season, where they completed a domestic UAE President’s Cup and AGL double for the first time in their history.
“I think we have to enjoy this and there is no psychological pressure,” said Al Ain coach Zoran Mamic, whose side are also marking their 50th anniversary celebrations this year. “Maybe once in a lifetime one gets an opportunity to be a part of this tournament and we have to enjoy and try to do our best.”
Representing Oceania, New Zealand’s Wellington wrote a new chapter in their football history by winning the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Champions League for the first time in May.
“Team Welly” became the tournament’s second confirmed qualifier when they defeated Fijian champions Lautoka FC 10-3 on aggregate in a two-legged final.
Coached by Englishman Jose Manuel Figueira, the semi-professional team are keen to upset local favourites Al Ain.
“We have got a really good understanding of Al Ain, their personality and the way they want to play,” said Figueira. “They have a lot of attacking weapons in the team. They have individuals that can open up the game at any moment.”
The winner of the Al Ain v Wellington play-off will progress to the second round to face ES Tunis, the club champions of Africa. The Tunisian side qualified for the tournament with a 4-3 aggregate win over Egyptian giants Al-Ahly in November’s two-legged CAF Champions League final.
In the other second-round clash, Asia meets North America as AFC champions Kashima Antlers from Japan face Mexico’s Guadalajara, who became the first continental champion to qualify for the Club World Cup following a dramatic 4-2 penalty shoot-out win over Toronto in the North and Central American and the Caribbean (Concacaf) Champions League in April.
Both second-round games will take place at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium on Saturday December 15, with Kashima facing Guadalajara at 5pm and Tunis facing either Al Ain or Team Wellington at 8.30pm.
The losing sides from the second round will contest a fifth-place play-off on Tuesday, December 18 at 5.30pm, before one of Tunis, Al Ain or Wellington face Argentine side River Plate in the tournament’s first semi-final at 8.30pm.
River Plate won the right to represent South America’s Conmebol confederation and become the tournament’s final confirmed qualifier last Sunday after defeating domestic rivals Boca Juniors in the controversial Copa Libertadores final that was moved to Madrid because of crowd trouble in Argentina.
From there, Kashima or Guadalajara will face history-making Uefa Champions League winners Real Madrid in the second semi-final on Wednesday 19 December at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium. The Spanish club beat English Premier League side Liverpool 3-1 in Kiev in May to become the first team to win three consecutive editions of Europe’s premier club tournament.
“Our magnificent seven are confirmed and the Fifa Club World Cup UAE 2018 is now here,” said Aref Hamed Al Awani, the Tournament Director, Club World Cup Local Organising Committee. “The teams are ready, the fans are ready, and Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the UAE are ready.”