Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Doolittle

Konnichiwa!

A quick sprint away from Nikko - home of the Asian Hockey League's 4th-place Ice Bucks! - to Shinjuku, where le tout Tokyo (or, 34,000 of us, anyway) turned out to watch Al-Ahly vs. Internacional in the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup at the National Stadium (remember all those beautiful stadiums made for the World Cup? Well, this isn't one of those, unfortunately).

For those of you wondering what in Christ the Club World Cup is, a brief explanation. For 50 years or so, Toyota sponsored a one-off event called the Inter-continental Cup - a one-off match every December between the top European and South American clubs (selected via the European and Libertadores Cup, respectively).

In 2000, FIFA - which had never previously held any kind of club competition for the very good reason that clubs are not members and have no power whatsoever within the organization - suddenly twigged that people might actually care more about clubs than countries and was hence missing the boat when it came to club competitions. It ran its own 8-team event in 2000 alongside the Toyota event, but the repsonse was poor and an expanded 12-team event collapsed when FIFA's main sponsor - ISL - went tits up in 2001. By 2005, Sepp Blatter had muscled his way back into the field and converted the Tokyo event into an annual six-team event, with the champions of Africa, Oceania, North America and Asia playing off for the right to meet the champions of Europe and South America in a semi-final, followed by a final. Clear?

Eight degrees on a misty night and wet turf might sound like a fine evening of football in the UK, but for Brazilians and Egyptians it's uncharted territory, meteorologically-speaking, and the game suffered accordingly. The Egyptians in particular seemed baffled by the slickness of the ball and despite starting with five in midfield, were simply overrun by the Brazilians for the first twenty-five minutes.

It was late in this opening phase when Internacional opened the scoring. 17-year-old Alexander Pato, making only his second start for the club (an unfortunate indication of the lack of seriousness of this competition) scored after an astonshing defensive gaffe. The Egyptian centre-half El Nahas seemed to be unaware that Pato could not be ruled offside on an errant Al-Ahly backpass. Unmolested, Pato walked into the area and beat the keeper low and left.

To say that Al-ahly are unversed in the art of off-the-ball runs would be charitable, but they were tactically astute enough to take advantage of an obvious flaw in the Inter set-up. Despite playing 4-4-2, the Brazlian defence played with a lack of width not seen since the Carpenters were last in concert. Indeed, at times it appeared as if they were playing with four central defenders.

Wingers Tarek Said and Islam El-Shater repeatedly made use of Inter's sideline aversion to get into dangerous positions, resulting in an encouraging set-piece in the 36th minute, and a post-rattling drive in the 39th. Inter were on the skids. Al-Ahly received their just reward in the 54th when Said, again virtually unmarked on the wing, sent in a cross for the Angolan Flavio, who converted stylishly to level the match.

Even before Pato came off injured in the 64th minute, it was obvious that Inter were in need of someone less decorative to lead the line. Apart from the weak goal, Pato's only contribution to the game was as light entertainment when he juggled the ball with his shoulder for a 20-yard sprint down the wing. His replacement, the Baptista-lookalike Luiz Adriano, immediately caused problems with his aggressive runs. From a corner in the 72nd, this directness paid off handsomely as he lost his markers and scored from a free glancing header.

The rest of the game was uneventful. Inter may deserved the win, but Al-Ahly provided by far the better entertainment and displayed much greater energy and commitment. The much-heralded Ferdinandao (pictured, above), was notable mostly for his complete lack of influence on the game.

If this is the best South America can offer, then the game is in dire straits. Despite the win, Inter bombed in Tokyo last night and provided Barcelona overcome jetlag to beat America this evening, they will be bombing in Yokohama come Sunday. Barcelona eat better teams than this for tapas every week in La Liga.

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