Tournament held in high esteem throughout South America
15 December ~ When River Plate won their Copa Libertadores semi-final against Paraguayan side Guaraní back in July, there was obvious excitement from their supporters. However, that excitement was elevated a notch further 24 hours later when Tigres of Mexico claimed the other spot in the final.
It wasn’t because River were particularly pleased to be facing the Mexicans, but rather that club sides from Mexico are only invited into South America’s main club competition, meaning that even if they win it they are not allowed to participate in the Club World Cup as South America’s representative.
As a consequence, the fact that River had reached the final meant they had automatically booked themselves a spot in the first semi-final in Japan, a match will take place tomorrow morning and sees River take on J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
With the decline in quality that domestic football in South American has seen over the past 20 years, the Club World Cup, or Intercontinental Cup as it was known until 2004, is probably as important to South America as it has ever been.
The last South Americans to win the title were Brazilian side Corinthians in 2012 who, in doing so, took more than 30,000 fans with them to Japan, overcoming the significant geographic and economic hurdles which that entails. River are not expected to take quite as many, though more than 15,000 are still likely to be present in Osaka for their semi-final.
“This is the top of the mountain,” River’s experienced goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero told reporters after training on Monday. “This [competition] is unique. We’ve all dreamt about it since we were kids.” With the Argentinian championship at an end, the local media have been covering the build-up to the tournament in minute detail, the daily newspaper Olé feeling it necessary to outline the on-board facilities of the aeroplane in which Barcelona’s squad flew to Japan.
While every quote by a Barcelona player is being reported and dissected in the sports dailies, River appear to not be getting ahead of themselves and are focused on their semi-final with Sanfrecce. This appears a wise approach given the uninspiring manner in which River finished their domestic campaign.
Semi-finals were introduced when the tournament expanded in 2005 and are rarely straightforward affairs for the South Americans, as Internacional and Atlético Mineiro have found out in recent years, both losing to representatives from Africa.
While River have returned to picking up trophies in the last 18 months, theirs is not a vintage squad and is only as strong as it is because key midfielders Matías Kranevitter and Carlos Sánchez have put their transfers to Spain and Mexico respectively on hold until after the tournament. That kind of sacrifice is no surprise locally and goes to show the esteem with which the Club World Cup is continues to be held. Marcus Haydon