As the Arabian Gulf League champions, Jazira take on the role of host representative and they have a chance to not only excel on the pitch but to promote the UAE and Abu Dhabi to the world.
Al Jazira's presence at Fifa Club World Cup should be celebrated but brings with it added pressure
Henk ten Cate emphasised the need for his players to realise the magnitude of the moment.
“Not only for their club, but for their country as well,” said the Al Jazira manager, as he sought this week to prepare his team for the Fifa Club World Cup.
Staged in the UAE for the third time and first in seven years, Jazira are host representatives, just like Al Ahli were in 2009, and Al Wahda in 2010.
The Abu Dhabi club sealed their place in the seven-team, intercontinental competition by securing only a second UAE top-flight title, an unlikely achievement when the 2016/17 Arabian Gulf League began 15 months ago. Nonetheless, it was confirmed back in April.
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Thus, the Club World Cup has always been there since, a reward for outperforming Al Ain, Ahli, Al Wasl and all last season, recompense for all the endeavor undertaken. “The cherry on top of the cake,” as Ten Cate puts it.
As a result, Jazira open the tournament with the play-off against Auckland City on Wednesday, but participating in that encounter alone would not be anywhere near enough. Win that, and Jazira enter the event proper, at the quarter-final stage, moving to within one game of meeting defending champions Real Madrid in the last four.
Given the Club World Cup’s composition, victory against Auckland in Al Ain would guarantee Jazira two more matches at least, no matter what: the quarter-final with Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds and, should Ten Cate’s men lose to the Japanese, a fifth-placed play-off against either Mexico’s Pachuca or Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca.
As the UAE side in a multi-national contest, Jazira’s inclusion should be celebrated, but it brings with it added pressure. As hosts, the Abu Dhabi club will want to showcase themselves well.
From the outside, the expectation will be to do the country proud, to carry the flag through to the last eight and maybe even beyond.
Ahli could not manage it in 2009, eliminated at the first opportunity by Auckland. Then, UAE football had only just embarked on its professional era, the landscape wholly different to what it is now.
The following year, Wahda fared marginally better. Josef Hickersberger’s side defeated Hekari United from Papa New Guinea in their play-off, a convincing 3-0 victory that ensured the UAE champions sustained in what for that short spell constituted the UAE’s tournament.
Wahda would lose in the quarter-finals three days later, but their match against South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma was watched at Zayed Sports City by more than 30,000 spectators. Only the fixtures involving Italy’s Inter Milan, the eventual winners, attracted a larger crowd.
Ultimately, Wahda finished sixth, defeated in the fifth-placed play-off on penalties by Pachuca. Still, the host team featured three times. As a result, the tournament felt that it mattered that bit more.
Look past Jazira, and this month’s Club World Cup should prove a success anyway, given Madrid’s involvement and the pedigree of Urawa and Gremio, two extremely well-supported teams in Japan and Brazil, respectively.
Triumph for the tournament would equate to not only Jazira’s performances on the pitch, but what takes place off it, too. Fan-engagement is key; fan turnout, across all eight matches, is desired. Jazira, a local team performing internationally, would no doubt help in that.
As Ten Cate says, it is not only his side being promoted. It is Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, the Emirates. The country’s chance to showcase itself to the world, like in the past with the various Fifa tournaments it has staged.
As a capital club, they play a central role. As Ten Cate reminded, Jazira compete this month for more than just themselves.