By Brian Homewood
UNLOVED in Europe, the Club World Cup is still adored in South America where players regard the tournament as the pinnacle of their careers and clubs as the high point in their history.
Thousands of fans of South American champions River Plate have been arriving in Japan over the last week, hoping their team can pull off a major upset and dethrone European champions Barcelona.
In contrast to the indifference among European media and fans, the build-up in South America lasts for weeks and is often comparable to the World Cup itself.
Spanish champions Barcelona, who have squeezed the tournament into their busy schedule, arrived in Japan on Monday, three days before their semi-final against Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande on Thursday.
River Plate, on the other hand, have coasted through the last few months since winning the Libertadores Cup, clearly with their minds on Japan, and arrived more than one week ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final in Osaka against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, champions of the host nation.
For their send-off from Argentina, River held a public training session in their stadium and a carnival-like procession to the airport.
An estimated 25,000 flag-waving, drum-banging fans lined the 30-kilometre route, letting off fireworks, and dozens of private car followed the team bus, hooting incessantly, to form a huge and rowdy convoy which blocked the highway.
In all, River are expected to receive the backing of around 15,000 fans who have defied a 30-hour flight and enormous expense to make the trip.
River, who won the old Intercontinental Cup in 1986 but lost to Juventus 10 years later, were also given a rapturous reception as they arrived by bullet train in Osaka from Tokyo as several hundred supporters crowded onto the platform.
“This is a unique moment and I wouldn’t change it for anything,” midfielder Carlos Sanchez told reporters after a training session. “I’m not going to have another opportunity like this.”
Veteran Javier Saviola, who has returned to end his career at River after he was raised at the club, said the ‘Millionaires’ had always been obsessed with beating Europe’s best.
“I started playing for the club when I was eight and it (River’s obsession) has been there all the time,” he said.
“The club has always seen it as an opportunity for glory but, if anything, there’s more expectation this time than there was in ‘96 with Juventus.”
The tournament, featuring the six continental club champions plus national champions of the host nation, has existed in its current form since 2005, having succeeded the Intercontinental Cup, a one-off played in Tokyo between the European and South American champions.
The 1980s saw South American dominance but the momentum changed with the globalisation of the sport which has turned the region’s clubs into feeders for Europe-based teams.
The South Americans are now closer to the standard of teams from Asia and Africa and often find the semi-final a real struggle, especially with the tantalising prospect of a match against a big-name European side at stake.
Curiously, as the gap has widened, South American enthusiasm appears to have grown, the appeal now being that a team such as River Plate, made up largely of journeymen players, can have a pop at trying to beat star-studded Barcelona.
Former Porto and Marseille midfielder Luis Gonzalez said he had fond memories of getting up at dawn to watch the fixture during the 1980s.
“Those live broadcasts early in the morning,” he told FIFA.com. “I never thought I’d have the chance to play in such an amazing competition. For us, playing in the Club World Cup is like touching the heavens.”