Saturday, December 20, 2008

FIFA World Club Championship: A Longer Look - Beyond the Pale

For argument: The problem with approaching any non-European competition as an a priori supporter of English or other European leagues or clubs is that one tends to be blinded by one's predispositions and miss what virtues there may be in such competitons. Take the currently ongoing FIFA World Club Championship tournament in Japan. While in general agreement with the commonly held disparaging view of many of the chintzier elements of this tournament, I also fear the conventionally-wise disdain teeters over in some cases into easy and outright scorn, rather unfairly given the quality of some of the actual play; and that this imbalanced and perhaps prejudicial treatment calls for a bit of redressing.

The Eurocentric prejudice against less familiar manifestations of world football I'm here addressing holds true especially in the case of Latin American competitions, and tends also to extend into a general disregard for the contributions of Latin American clubs in international competitions in general. Granted Latin American football doesn't much resemble European football--it boasts less raw power, and probably also less pace than one might expect from the EPL, if not also from La Liga, and perhaps even from Serie A (though has anyone ever sincerely accused Serie A of being the least bit pacy?)--it also offers relative virtues of its own: more touches, more finesse, more grace, and, in this writer's modest view, more true fighting spirit.

The present Japan world club tournament is no exception. The sometimes farcical nature of the set-up and proceedings may well have caused many to see this as a shambolic clown show to be laughed at and ignored in anticipation of the ultimate appearance of the semi-divine grandees from Manchester, who have pretty much been accorded the championship before even venturing out of the hotel mass-autograph-sessions to bother to touch stud to pitch.

But in the quarter-finals we did--as has unfortunately not been much reported outside the "hinterlands" (semi-wildernesses?) of Latin America and North Africa--see one wonderful match. Al Ahly, the skilled and brave Egyptian club here representing Africa, looked indomitable for most of the night against Mexican CONCACAF representative Pachuca; but in the second half Pachuca came roaring back, tied the match at 2-2 late-on with a goal by Argentine forward Christian "Chaco" Gimenez, working an adroit 1-2 with his fellow Argentine Bruno Marioni, then scored twice again in extra time--the ultimate winner put in by another of Pachuca's experienced and talented Argentine contingent, Damian "El Chilendrino" Alvarez, with an insurance goal coming on Gimenez's second of the night. Marvelous and utterly exciting game, in short, whichever side you may have been rooting for.

Then, after enduring the intervening descent into admittedly dull matches involving the pretty ordinary Oceanian and Asian representatives--never more than straw opponents anyway, vying in futility for the anticipated dubious honour of being knocked out by imperious United in the semis--came the semifinal between Pachuca and Copa Libertadores winner Liga de Quito of Ecuador, representing the South American continent.

You may not have heard of the latter club unless you're enough of a football fan to have looked in on their recent victorious Libertadores campaign, crowned by a fantastic conquest away to Fluminense in the caldron of Maracana in Rio de Janeiro; but if you were lucky enough to see any of that, you'll know that Liga represents no straw opponent for anybody. This is a wicked-good football club.

As I might have expected unreason got the better of me and I ended up, after three nights up working on a piece on the unbelievably exciting Mexican gran final, not sleeping again, opting instead for tuning in at 2.30 a.m. to the Pachuca/Liga semi-final in Japan.

And the game I thought was bad/good, with the good winning out on balance. The weather conditions and crowd apathy: very bad. Reminded me of 2002 Copa Mundial and why I hate watching games played in Far East: unless local teams are involved (in which case we observe mass robotic beehive-culture fanatic brainless crowd support), nobody in the stadium understands or cares what's happening save the few loyal traveling supporters. Thus here, a few dozen Pachuca fans made more noise than the "neutral" crowd.

But the football they saw, despite awful conditions, had some real quality I thought. The ultimate winners from Ecuador sported in their starting eleven the nucleus of the same wonderful Liga club aficionados of Latin football know from the Libertadores–the night's two scorers Bieler and Bolanos, plus Manso, Riesgo, Cevallos, all the key players from last year save the excellent, now-departed winger Guerron. Once behind 2-0, in a nasty cold rain, Pachuca had an impossibly slippery hill to climb.

But this was the same veteran club that had fought back so courageously to defeat Al Ahly a few nights earlier, and you could see they believed in the possibility of doing the same here–si se puede! Were I a Pachuca loyalist, I'd have been disappointed on the night yet nonetheless would have felt no shame in holding my head high afterward, given the battling performance of my defeated club. And were I an Argentine (instead of merely a foolish old norteamericano) I'd be entirely proud of the fighting spirit shown, pretty much for pride's sake, by the venerable Pachuca all-Argentine front line of Gimenez-Alvarez-Marioni… luchando, peleando till the end. Pachuca must have outshot Liga by 20-8 or so, dominated possession by something like an 80/20 ratio, made many great late chances, while never quite managing to llegar--get there in the end--but left all their hearts on the pitch nonetheless.

So: I had little trouble extracting more than a bit of the good (excellent competitive football of a pleasantly high quality) from the otherwise bad (the rest of the tournament, i.e. games not involving the three clubs from Africa and Latin America). Mixed views on the tournament so far, then--but please let's not entirely dismiss it as merely another convenient stage for the prancing glories of United, as some have done.

You can probably tell from all this that in my heart I had really wished for a Pachuca/United final. And as it is, I expect LDU to give United a run for their money. Anyone else feel likewise?


donwendyagain said...

I reckon United could beat LDU with 10 men.

beyond the pale said...

Fair hindsight Don. More to say about this and I've submitted something. But for now: I reckon United spent the last half hour on the back foot and were lucky indeed that Van der Sar at full stretch managed to tip Damian Manso's ninetieth minute missile over the bar, else the mighty champions might still be sweating it out over there in Japan against that club nobody had ever heard of. On that trophy should be etched: we were fortunate to have survived. Or did you consider this another famous victory?

beyond the pale said...

As I suggested, I'll have more to say on this match and tournament in another post here if Ebren permits. But for the moment perhaps it would be useful to step aside and allow a word to a media voice from the other side, that of editor Paul Ochoa of the fine, a site that covers Ecuador as well as other footballing nations of South America. Here is Paul's match report, with a video clip:

For those who don't read Spanish, Paul's conclusion, to paraphrase roughly, is that United was superior in all areas and is a deserving winner of the trophy--but that no one can disrespect the hard work of Liga de Quito, who came out of the match with heads held high and left a fine impression. (Paul gives man of the match honors to Liga keeper Cevallos, also man of the match in the Libertadores final.)

donwendyagain said...

A famous victory it was indeed. LDU are a decent side but United were clearly the better team and were hardly hanging on at the end as you suggest. Even after the sending off United were the more adventurous team and were fully deserving of their victory.

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