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Club World Cup diary (Part 9)

4 Mar 2012(Sun)

Sunday 18 December 2011: Yokohama (contd.)

18:45 Saying all that, the third-place playoff is a bit of a damp squib. With both teams having exerted themselves quite exhaustively over the past few months, Kashiwa Reysol and Al-Sadd ultimately play out a goalless draw that goes straight to penalties in order that the final can kick off in time. In a twist of irony, the home side are defeated as Takanori Sugeno, the hero of the quarter-final shootout, is beaten by all five Al-Sadd attempts and Ryohei Hayashi, who converted the winning penalty against Monterrey, is the only man to miss.

Perhaps the most entertaining incident of the match comes just before half time when a couple of North African journalists over the aisle from me attempt to engage one of stadium food sellers in a bit of banter. This immediately sends our resident JFA jobsworth – the one who chastised Asif from Qatar/Egypt for taking a photo last week – into a panic and he rushes over to issue a stern verbal warning: “No! Stop it! You cannot buy from her! You cannot eat here!”

I’m fairly certain that the pair had no intention of actually purchasing her spicy spaghetti sticks but even then, the hunger that formed the basis for their chatter was quite understandable. With no food laid on by the organisers for the press and only 45 minutes before the second game, none of us would likely be getting any dinner before midnight. It seemed unduly hostile of the JFA guy to clamp down even on window shopping for other alternatives in such a vehement manner. I sincerely hope the many overseas journalists’ impressions of this beautiful country will not have been overly dented by the quasi-totalitarian attitude of one or two Japanese men in suits.

The reduced interval before the final initially leads me to eschew a hunt for quotes in favour of the press room where I would use the time to type up two or three hundred words from my cleverly-tweeted notes on the playoff. But an argument breaks out behind me between some Qatari and Brazilian photographers over space allocations, with the latter party becoming increasingly heated and threatening to sue the former for moving their equipment. It is fun to watch for a while but ultimately quite a distraction so I join Cesare Polenghi in the mixed zone to see what we can gather. With only 10 minutes until kickoff, I am about to cut my losses when I spot Abdulla Koni about to head our way following a television interview. He kindly shakes my hand and stops for our third chat of the week.

Are you satisfied today? You look a lot happier than when I last saw you!
Yeah, we are very happy today. Very, very happy to take the third place, because we are the champions of the Champions League so we had to show the people that it is not easy to take the Champions League. We had to show them that we are a good team; that’s why today we fought so hard to take the third place and show everybody that it was our moment to take this one.

The match looked quite well poised in the first half, but then the second never really got going. Do you think both teams seemed to settle for penalties?
No, I don’t think so. We don’t know them and they don’t know us, so in the first half everyone is looking at the other team to see how they will play. That’s normal, you know, because it was like a final – you will not open up the field and you won’t give so many chances. That’s normal; it’s a cup game but it’s not like the Champions League. So that’s why we are keeping our goal (safe) and also they are keeping their goal. It’s not like the Champions League where you are playing ten or twenty games. In the second half the game felt a little more open because Reysol wanted to score a goal. But I think we are happy for that – it was a nice game and I think you will have enjoyed the game.

Do you think you deserved to win the game?
Of course. It was an open game – they can win, or we can win. Because, like I say, it was a final. But the penalties were lucky. Penalties are always chance, you know.

You say that, but Al-Sadd have now won two big penalty shootouts in a row – following the AFC Champions League final. So you must be quite good at it.
Yeah, this is very nice! But that’s why I tell you that we know how to play like a final game. The final game is different from the (rest of the) Champions League. Any team that doesn’t know how to play a final will lose the final. The final is something different. That is why we made sure they didn’t take a goal, and after that used any mistake (from Kashiwa) to play and to take the game. If you go to penalties, then every time it is chance. And we are lucky to have taken our chances at two finals, thanks to God. It’s nice – if we can continue like this, maybe we will take the World Cup next time!

So what happens next for Al-Sadd? You’re Asian champions and third in the world, but next year you haven’t even got the ACL to play for.
Yeah, next year we are going to have to fight because for the last two or three years we haven’t taken the championship in Qatar. So now all our focus is on that – to take the league in Qatar. Because two or three years is not easy – we are a big team and we have to take titles. There have been some difficult moments and that’s why we failed, but I think now we are coming back and next year we will fight to take the league of Qatar.

What a thoroughly pleasant man. I thank him for his time and sincerely hope that our paths will cross again, as I dash back to my seat to see if Barcelona versus Santos will actually live up to all the hype.

20:30 Bloody hell. Barcelona are frighteningly good. At half time I bump into Dragan Stojković again, who has been spotted by an increasingly large gathering of waving fans, and share a joke about how it might all have been different had his Nagoya Grampus been the ones to face them tonight. He laughs heartily. I’m told not many people make him do that, and return to my seat with a smile of my own.

21:30 Nope, not even Grampus would have coped with this.

22:30 I think much of the anticipation leading up to this game stemmed from the fact that Santos were pretty well the one team left in the world that had a) impressed everyone enormously over the past year and b) been yet to face Barcelona. It was perhaps, therefore, in hope rather than expectation that we wondered if Neymar and company would be good enough to challenge the Catalans in a manner that few had previously been able. The 4-0 scoreline was a comprehensive rebuttal; the performance a reminder of why, despite trailing Real Madrid as they sometimes seem to go through the motions in La Liga matches this season, this current Barcelona vintage will go down as one of the finest in world football history. It has been an utter privilege to witness them with my own eyes.

I catch up with Sean Carroll to form a little gaggle of British writers in the mixed zone with Gus Fielding of Kyodo News and Andrew McKirdy of the Japan Times, who conducted a fascinating interview with Stojković for Issue Two of The Blizzard. Our priority tonight is to ensure that at least one of the few English speakers will stop and talk, and Sean quickly takes an opportune position to get the Barcelona press officer on the case for us. A handful of players and officials, including manager Josep Guardiola and president Sandro Rosell, stroll through and exchange embraces with a couple of Catalan journalists. We obviously can’t compete with that, but it is a bit of a shame when Gerard Piqué marches past without batting an eyelid towards our attempts to stop him.

Cesc Fabregas initially does the same as he recognises a Spanish party inconveniently stood next to us; Sean, however, is in determined mood and leads us back down the line again, making sure that the press officer knows exactly who we’re after. To his great credit, the former Arsenal man is actually quite happy to lend us a few minutes and speaks rather eloquently about his third winners’ medal since returning home to Barcelona in the summer. It is a wonder that all that time spent in England fraternising with our local footballers evidently didn’t prove too detrimental to his English.

I steal a couple of quotes in Portuguese from a ruefully smiling Neymar and ask one of the staff for a Japanese translation; Sean is at the centre of a small crowd doing the same with Lionel Messi, who hasn’t escaped out of a back door this time. We find a quiet corner so I can translate the translations into English for Sean to somehow compose an article out from their string of clichés. While Fabregas – and, from what I could overhear, a number of the others including Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta – had spoken so well, I guess perhaps the very best really don’t think of anything but the football.

Monday 19 December 2011: Yokohama

02:00 Back in my weekly mansion, I have finally got some dinner and written up the Fabregas interview. Just one more article still to write. I open a can of Red Bull, and phone my Dad back in Somerset in an attempt to wake myself up a little. He hasn’t seen the game, but he did know Barcelona were playing someone in Japan because I was going to be there.

04:15 Bed time.

(To be concluded with a very brief postscript. I promise. Click here for Part 8.)

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