x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A game Al Wahda dare not lose

Al Wahda, the Pro League champions, could not afford a repeat of Al Ahli's performance, when they were beaten by part-timers.

Despondent Hekari United players reflect on their emphatic Club World Cup defeat at the hands of Al Wahda last night.
Despondent Hekari United players reflect on their emphatic Club World Cup defeat at the hands of Al Wahda last night.

In a world as demanding and ruthless as this one we inhabit here, it is generally considered advisable for professional football teams to go ahead and defeat semi-professional teams whose players must have upright other jobs such as "banker" or "fisherman".

Now, that premise detracts not one iota from the runaway coolness of a team such as Hekari United, who have graced Fifa's 2010 Club World Cup with their pluck and storyline, and whose verve enhanced Mohammad bin Zayed Stadium last night right to the moment when the final whistle blew and two of their mainstays tumbled to the grass in commendable chagrin.

If you cannot appreciate a team from Papua New Guinea touching unprecedented skies such as this, you probably dwell within some perpetual cloud of your own making, wallowing in untold gloom and best left alone in corners.

Still, I'm telling you, upon a mean, unforgiving planet full of harrumphing fans and sneering critics, the professional team does need to defeat the semi-professional, and preferably by some emphatic score such as the 3-0 with which Al Wahda bested Hekari to open the 11-day proceedings.

Historical evidence of the importance of beating teams whose players have real jobs does not necessarily abound, but it does sprinkle just enough to name two pertinent cases here.

Just last year in this same competition, Al Ahli of Dubai lost to Auckland City of New Zealand, by 2-0, the goals coming from a guy who also teaches physical education and health at a college in Auckland, and a guy who lists his other job as "kids' coach".

If you will recall, the kids' coach scored first, the physical education and-health guy scored second, the manager said, "We played out of our skins tonight," and the Pro League pressure shifted to 2010 and Wahda to avert any rerun.

That pressure turned up in the forbidding of Wahda players from participation in the Gulf Cup so as to focus on the Club World Cup.

It howled behind the getaway trip to Egypt.

It may have showed in manager Josef Hickersberger's epochal trip to Port Moresby to scout Hekari, and possibly in the relief Hickersberger projected last night after having solved mysterious, nothing-to-lose Hekari.

As he said before the match, "I just hope everything will be OK."

Yeah. Physical education teachers and kids' coaches and bankers and fishermen who can play some football may inspire upset-lovers everywhere, but somebody always has to live on the other side of unforgettable shocks, and that is where the harshness and spite alight, and that is where we come to a second history lesson.

Some 20 years and three months ago in one of those events that fastens itself doggedly to human memory - evidence right here - Hickersberger's Austria side lost 1-0 in Euro 1992 qualifying to tiny Faroe Islands, whose semi-professional roster did feature one fisherman but also a truck driver at a fish factory and an office manager at a wife's dental practice.

All 16 Faroe players had full-time real jobs while grittily finding time to practice thrice weekly, and it must have brought some relief for Austria that, contrary to immediate legend and hyperventilating press reports, the roster did not include any shepherds.

Whew.

Now, the loss in Landskrona, Sweden, on a 62nd-minute goal from the immortal Torkil Nielsen, did not brand Hickersberger a bad manager or anything close, especially given that Austria reportedly had about 473 chances to score. After all, he later managed Austria both again and well.

It did cost him his job within hours, though, and it spawned his quotations such as: "A longer future with the team is hardly thinkable for me," and that is where the cold-hearted, barbarous world butts in and starts tutting and snorting over things that "should never happen" even in sport, whose charms allegedly include that anything can happen.

Opposite the magic on the one side (even without shepherds) roils the cold, hard business on the other.

So with cold, hard business in mind, Wahda's thumping win should forestall any ticket-clerk tedium for this Club World Cup, ensuring that a home club will remain for at least two more matches counting consolations.

Add that to the sigh-worthy elements of an adroit and perfunctory 3-0 win on a fine opening night in Mohammad bin Zayed Stadium.

And remember this as well: if you could have stomached football saddling a perfectly good manager with losses to a fish-factory truck driver, a dental-office manager, a banker and a Pacific-islands fisherman all within the same lifetime, well then, even for this world you are unusually ruthless.

cculppeper@thenational.ae