Team Wellington have already conquered both their own backyard and the entire Oceania region but there is one more stage on which they are yet to make their mark – the rest of the world.
They will get the opportunity to start doing so in the early hours of Thursday morning (NZT) when they take on hosts Al Ain in the opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.
Whatever the result, Jose Figueira’s side will make history in the United Arab Emirates as they have never competed in a global event and are only the third club from these shores to ever feature at the Club World Cup, following in the footsteps of Auckland City and Waitakere United.
It’s the first time since 2010 that Auckland City will not be present at the tournament – in which they hold a record number of appearances with nine – after Wellington finally broke their stranglehold on the OFC Champions League to book a berth in the UAE.
“It’s always good to have someone new going to the Club World Cup and we’re glad it’s us,” captain Justin Gulley says.
“It’s a massive step forward for the club and hopefully that trend continues. It’s something we’ve tried really hard over the last few years to achieve and the rewards have finally come about.”
As the only amateur side in the competition, the odds will be stacked against the newcomers. But Auckland City have previously shown what can be achieved by shocking the footballing world to finish third four years ago and striker Ross Allen sees no reason why Wellington can’t repeat the heroics of their domestic rivals.
“It’s going to be a really hard ask to just win that one game but I think we’ve got a chance,” says Allen, who would instead by lining up against Whitstable Town in the Isthmian League Division One South had he not left Guernsey FC to move halfway around the world a year ago.
“They’ve got home advantage but we’ve got a really strong group, it’s very competitive in training and we have some really good players. We’re a team that’s very good when we’re playing well and winning games so, if we can get past that first game, then momentum and confidence can really carry us through,” he adds.
“If we’re fortunate enough to get into the semi-finals and in and amongst those big teams then it really will be a dream come true.”
Before they can contemplate facing the likes of Copa Libertadores winners River Plate or the mighty Real Madrid though, the part-timers of Wellington must get past Al Ain tomorrow morning and there is no doubt they will have their work cut out for them against the hosts. Aside from being familiar with their surroundings at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain City, their opponents boast several players with international experience.
The most notable of these is Marcus Berg, a striker with nearly 70 caps for Sweden and who lists Groningen, Hamburger SV, PSV Eindhoven and Panathinaikos amongst his former clubs. The 32-year-old featured prominently in the Swedish team that earned the country’s best FIFA World Cup placing in 24 years in Russia just five months ago.
“We realise the task ahead is huge but it is something we are going to give our absolute all,” Figueira says.
“The biggest thing I would like to see is for us is to replicate the way we want to play on the biggest of stages. We want to show ourselves in the best light and represent our region well. Who knows what can happen on the day? We have seen before at the Club World Cup and other FIFA tournaments that the small dogs can upset the big dogs, so we are looking forward to testing ourselves,” he continues.
“The players are so hungry to improve in every match and every training session – I have absolutely no doubt we will see some of those elements against Al Ain. One of the key phrases we use as a group in the way we train and play is ‘full throttle’, it is everything or nothing. The challenge for us is to stay true to our principles against professional teams and players at the top level.”
FIFA Club World Cup Play-off
Al Ain vs Team Wellington
Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain City
Thursday 13 December, 4.30am (NZT)
Live on SKY Sport 3
Team Wellington (from): 1. Scott Basalaj (GK), 2. Justin Gulley (c), 3. Scott Hilliar, 4. Mario Ilich, 5. Liam Wood, 6. Taylor Schrijvers, 7. Eric Molloy, 8. Henry Cameron, 9. Tom Jackson, 10. Nathanael Hailemariam, 11. Mario Barcia, 12. Andrew Bevin, 14. Jack-Henry Sinclair, 15. Michael Boso, 16. Angus Kilkolly, 17. Alex Palezevic, 18. Aaron Clapham, 19. Ross Allen, 20. Tiahn Manuel, 21. Hamish Watson, 22. Marcel Kampman (GK), 23. Charlie Morris, 24. Steven Lecefel
Coach: Jose Figueira
Story by: NZ Football