Oceania champions Team Wellington have suffered heartbreak on the global stage, heroically going within a whisker of a massive upset over hosts Al Ain in the opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi this morning.
As the only amateur side in the competition, the two-time ISPS Handa Premiership champions went in as heavy underdogs on their tournament debut but turned all that on its head, racing into a 3-0 lead to shock their more highly-fancied rivals at the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium.
To their credit, Al Ain then rallied and showed great determination to claw themselves back to 3-3, scoring the vital equaliser with only five minutes left on the clock. That meant an enthralling contest would finally be decided from the penalty spot and the favourites kept their composure to triumph 4-3 and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Despite the disappointment of seeing a three-goal lead slip through his side’s hands, Team Wellington coach Jose Figueira couldn’t have been prouder.
“With the resources that we have and who we are, to put in a performance like that against a world-class team is sensational,” he said.
“I put my players through hell and asked for a tremendous amount – today is probably the most that they’ve ever given. We took them to the wire and it wasn’t to be today but, when the dust settles, I think they’ll be hungry to come back to this stage and prove themselves again.”
The New Zealand team opened the scoring early on in emphatic fashion, Argentinian Mario Barcia registering an early contender for goal of the tournament with a superb long-range strike which arrowed into the top corner. Just four minutes later, Wellington doubled their lead when Andy Bevin played in former All Whites midfielder Aaron Clapham, who coolly slotted into the bottom corner.
Al Ain thought they had reduced the deficit when Caio Fernandes found the net but the Brazilian’s goal was disallowed by a Video Assistant Referee decision as a result of a foul on Hamish Watson in the build-up. Having survived that scare, the Oceania representatives were then in dreamland as they made it three, Mario Ilich tapping in at the back post after a Henry Cameron corner was unwittingly flicked on by a defender.
With a shock exit now looking likely, Zoran Mamic’s side grabbed one back just before the break through Tsukasa Shiotani to cap a goal-laden first half. Spurred on by the home crowd, Al Ain notched their second when a low ball across the box from Caio reached Tongo Doumbia, who found the roof of the net.
The hosts continued to pile on the pressure and grabbed their much-coveted equaliser on 85 minutes through a classy turn and volley from substitute Marcus Berg to take the game into extra time.
Nobody was able to make a hero of themselves by finding a winner though, leaving the result to be determined from 12 yards. Sweden international Berg blazed his effort over the bar to hand the initiative to Wellington but Angus Kilkolly couldn’t take advantage as his effort was saved.
Captain Justin Gulley was last to step up and needed to score to keep his side in the competition but goalkeeper Khalid Eisa again pulled off an outstanding stop to spare Al Ain’s blushes and break the hearts of both the Wellington players and a small but rowdy contingent of supporters who had travelled to the UAE.
“We made history on arrival and I’m just thankful that we could put in a performance that showed we deserved to be here,” Figueira said.
“We pushed them all the way and I said right from the start that, as long as we got that as a performance, then I couldn’t be any prouder and that’s exactly how I’m feeling right now.”
Al Ain 3 (Tsukasa Shiotani 45’, Tongo Doumbia 49’, Marcus Berg 85’)
Team Wellington 3 (Mario Barcia 11’, Aaron Clapham 15’, Mario Ilich 44’)
Al Ain win 4-3 on penalties
Story by: NZ Football