Just when you thought the capital had seen some of the world’s glitziest sports stars drive off our sandy shores, we’re all set to welcome a truck-load more top athletes. Some of the biggest names in international football will be arriving in the UAE for the FIFA Club World Cup 2017, providing the country’s football fans with a brilliant opportunity to watch the sport’s top talent in the flesh.
The 14th instalment of the annual tournament is being co-hosted by Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and will take place from December 6 to 16. A total of eight games will be played at either the capital’s Zayed Sports City Stadium and Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in the Garden City.
This will be the third time one of the world's most prestigious club competitions is played out in Abu Dhabi, the city having previously hosted the tournament in 2009 and 2010.
So who’s taking part this year? Well, so far, UEFA Champions League 2016-2017 winners Real Madrid, OFC Champions League 2017 victors Auckland City, CAF Champions League holders Wydad Athletic Club and CONCACAF Champions League 2016-2017 winners Pachuca have qualified by triumphing in their respective regions. Joining them in the fold will be the ‘Pride of Abu Dhabi’, Al Jazira Club, with the cream of the crop from Asia and South America set to join the international cast.
The first game will kick off on December 6 in Al Ain and will see Al Jazira take on Auckland City for what is bound to be a hard-fought clash. And the home favourites’ coach, Dutchman Henk ten Cate, is expecting a full house. “The people of Abu Dhabi should support us in this first game,” he tells Time Out Abu Dhabi.
Former French international defender Eric Abidal was part of the Barcelona squad that lifted the 2009 trophy and shares similar expectations for a big turnout for the matches. “I think it will be a great opportunity for the fans to welcome good teams from all over the world, teams like Real Madrid,” he told us at the tournament’s official draw back in October. “I came here with Barcelona and it was an amazing tournament with very good opponents. I hope it will be the same this year in December and I hope to be here to watch the games.”
The do-or-die format of the tournament will certainly keep everybody on their toes, so to speak. “You grow into the tournament. If you win your first game you take so much confidence with you,” says ten Cate. “We have to wait and see how the first game goes. It is not going to be easy but we are confident.”
While Abidal feels Zinedine Zidane’s galaxy of stars at Real Madrid will be very formidable, he would love to see a big upset. “The European teams generally do have a better chance, but it will be good to have a team from somewhere else winning this trophy.”
Knowing a thing or two about defeating Real Madrid while he was at Barcelona, Abidal’s advice to Al Jazira and the competition’s other teams is quite simple. “Be prepared and play hard, attack together. Try to score goals.
It is not easy but you never know in football,” he says.
And if all goes to plan and Al Jazira remain undefeated for their first and second round matches, we could potentially see the Abu Dhabi club face Real Madrid in the semi-finals.
FIFA Club World Cup – Clash of the Champions
Al Jazira Club
Can precious home advantage help the Abu Dhabi outfit conquer the world? The chances of a fairy-tale success story unfortunately now seem more remote than they did when the side completed a record-breakinging romp towards the UAE Arabian Gulf league title back in May.
Dutch master Henk ten Cate, who previously managed Ajax and has enjoyed stints as assistant boss of footballing giants Barcelona and Chelsea, led the team to a league-best haul of 22 league wins last year but has found the going a lot tougher in the current campaign.
The UAE champions, mostly made up of home-grown talent with a sprinkling of foreign flair, face what will be a crunch clash with fellow outsiders Auckland City in the tournament’s opening match.
Should they prevail and then see off their second round opponents, Al Jazira would face the might of Real Madrid. Can this ultimate dream become a Real-ity?
Star Man: Mbark Boussoufa
The Moroccan maestro orchestrated Al Jazira’s title triumph, bagging eight goals and setting up another 12, and will be instrumental to their hopes of progression in this tournament. Now 33, his years of top-flight experience across Europe and big-game temperament are sure to prove vital. As well as playing more than 50 times for his country, Boussoufa was crowned Belgian Player of the Year three times during a successful five-year spell with Anderlecht in which he helped the side to two national titles and a cup win.
Auckland City Football Club
New Zealand is definitely a rugby country, but Auckland City are doing their bit to put the beautiful game in the national spotlight and make sure it isn’t all about the All Blacks. New Zealand’s best side for several years, they have also dominated the Oceania football scene, winning the Oceania Football Confederation Champions League an incredible seven years in a row. In 2014, they became the first Oceania team to reach the semi-finals of the Club World Cup, only losing out to Argentina’s San Lorenzo 2-1 after extra time. The Navy Blues will have their backs against the wall when they face home heroes Al Jazira in the tournament’s opening game but are unlikely to be fazed by the atmosphere as they prepare for their ninth appearance in the showpiece event. Auckland will be determined to avoid a third consecutive first round loss in the competition when they take to the field in Al Ain on December 6.
Star Man: Emiliano Tade
In the modern football era, inspirational rags to riches tales are few and far between, but Argentinian forward Emiliano Tade is a welcome exception to that rule. The prolific striker left his homeland to go backpacking in New Zealand almost a decade ago, finding work as a pot-washer before getting his break with Team Wellington. The talented stiker's form soon won the attention of Auckland and he has been cleaning up on the domestic scene ever since. Such was Tade’s success, he was briefly lured away by the offer of a professional contract in Argentina with Mitre in 2015, but he returned to Auckland soon after and the 29-year-old remains key to their hopes of making a global splash again.
Club De Futbol Pachucha
Expect a fair few Mexican waves in the stands this year – and not just when there is a lull in the on-field action. The Latin American country’s oldest football side will be making a fourth Club World Cup appearance after booking their slot in the seven-team field with victory in the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association) Champions League in April. The club was set up by Cornish emigrant miners working in Mexico back in 1901 and became a founding member of the Mexican Primera Division back in 1907. The famous outfit endured decades in the doldrums but the last 20 years have seen Pachucha re-assert themselves as one of the leading lights in the region. They will kick off their first Club World Cup campaign since 2010 against Casablanca’s Wydad in the second round, setting up a potential all-Americas semi-final clash with South America’s representatives.
Star Man: Jonathan Urretaviscaya
Remember the name (it’s Urreta for short, if that makes it easier) as this tricky winger could turn a few heads in the UAE. Urretaviscaya has worked his way into the Uruguayan national team this year on the back of impressive displays for Pachucha and while his debut didn’t quite go to plan – he was sent off in a defeat to Peru after picking up two bookings in the space of 11 minutes – he will be aiming to follow up a Club World Cup debut by earning a seat on the plane to Russia for the World Cup proper next summer. The Montevideo-born star has enjoyed spells with the likes of River Plate in Uruguay, Portugese giants Benfica and Spanish team Deportivo La Coruña during a nomadic career, but now appears to have found his footballing feet in Mexico.
The all-conquering Galacticos will be hot favourites to complete a third Club World Cup win in four years (and a fourth consecutive Spanish success after Barcelona’s 2015 triumph) when they land in the UAE. Zinedine Zidane’s all-star team became the first team to win back-to-back Champions Leagues with a resounding victory over Italian giants Juventus in May but they have endured a stuttering start to their league title defence. While the white hankies won’t be out for club legend Zidane any time soon, a Club World Club success could help put their season back on track. The misfiring form of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale’s continuing injury problems haven’t helped their cause, but the star quality of the boys from the Bernabeu means they will most definitely be the team to beat once more.
Star man: Cristiano Ronaldo
Who else could it be? In the age of transfer fees that run into the hundreds of millions, the Portugese superstar has actually proved a bargain buy for Madrid since signing from Manchester United in 2009. His frankly staggering goal record reads like a tally you might expect that really good player at school to accrue, but Ronaldo is doing it at the very highest level, game after game, year after year. The step-over swagger of his early years has been turned into an ultra-efficient machine who averages more than a goal a game. His brilliance has led Real to three Champions League titles, a brace of La Liga titles and two FIFA Club World Cup crowns, while last year (despite the inconsiderate attention of a fame-hungry moth) he captained Portugal to Euro 2016 success. Ronaldo has suffered a slow start to this season, but a man of his talents is never far away from hitting blistering form.
Wydad Athletic Club
Their name might make you think of the anguished cries of a pleading child who has just had their TV privileges snatched away from them, but Wydad Athletic are ready to go out of Africa and take on the world. The Casablanca-based team defeated Egyptian side Al Ahly 2-1 over two closely-fought legs to win the African Champions League for the second time earlier this month – 25 years after they were first crowned kings of the continent. They will be making their Club World Cup debut in the second round against Mexico’s Pachucha. Although the global stage might be new to them, Wydad are no strangers to success, having won a record 14 Moroccan championships. They are unlikely to add another title to their haul in December, but a romantic run to glory would be fitting for Casablanca’s finest.
Star Man: Achraf Bencharki
The tournament could prove a global shop window for this highly-coveted playmaker. Bencharki, who made a goal-scoring debut for Morocco at the start of the year and notched up five goals during a star-making role in the team’s African Champions League win, is seen as one of the continent’s brightest new talents. The 23-year-old has been linked with several French clubs, as well as vanquished Champions League opponents Al Ahly, in recent months and a strong showing in the UAE could see potential suitors for his silky skills come calling again.
The marathon Asia Champions League, which kicked off back in January, finally concluded on Saturday as Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal FC played out the second leg of their final clash with Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds after a 1-1 draw in the Middle East. The second leg ended 1-0 to the Japanese team. The match pitted two of the Asian confederation’s biggest sides against each other for the right to represent the continent against the best sides of the planet. Urawa Reds claimed their sole crown back in 2007 and went on to finish a credible third in that year’s Club World Cup. This year, Urawa Reds striker Rafael Da Silva ended the tournament as top scorer, tying with Al-Hilal’s Omar Kharbin with 10 goals, Former Leicester City midfielder and Urawa Reds captain, Yuki Abe, has also made a huge contribution.
South American bid
Europe’s stranglehold on the FIFA Club World Cup has only been threatened by South America’s best. The two footballing powerhouse continents have shared all 13 tournaments (with Europe winning nine to South America’s four). South American sides were the dominant force in the early years of the championship, winning the first three editions. However, he continent’s clubs have not tasted success since Corinthians defeated Chelsea back in 2012 but this year could be a big chance to end the drought due to Real Madrid’s faltering early season form. Brazilian sides have claimed all four of South America’s wins (two titles for Corinthians and one each for Sao Paulo and Internacional) and the country’s hopes are in the hands of Gremio, which was the last team to qualify.
The road to the final
For some teams, reaching the showpiece final in Abu Dhabi is a long and winding journey, while for others the ride can be somewhat smoother.
Defending champions Real Madrid and South America’s representatives do not start their campaign until the semi-final stage, while the capital’s own Al Jazira and Auckland City will kick off in round one, hoping to join the remaining three teams in the second round.
The unique format of the seven-team tournament means that the heavyweights from Europe and South America need to secure only two victories to claim the trophy, while early starters Al Jazira and Auckland City need to win four times be lift the trophy.