TOKYO (Reuters) – Lionel Messi is the most famous of a variety of characters at the Club World Cup which includes Auckland City’s part-timers, former Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and bunny-hopping Congolese goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba.
Messi’s Barcelona are runaway favourites to win the somewhat quirky tournament which, as much as anything, serves as reminder of the chasm which separates club football in Europe from the rest of the world.
The Catalans head a field which also includes South American champions River Plate, CONCACAF’s America, African champions TP Mazembe, Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande, the champions of Asia, and Oceania’s Auckland City.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who qualified as champions of host nation Japan, complete the lineup.
The tournament, successor to the sometimes volatile games in the Intercontinental Cup, is largely unloved and ignored in Europe, yet regarded as the pinnacle for teams in other parts of the world.
South American sides, in particular, spend months preparing and are invariably followed by thousands of fans who travel halfway around the world.
“My feeling is that even though they’re finals, the European teams feel that they’re going to end up winning,” said River Plate midfielder Lucho Gonzalez.
“When they start out feeling that relaxed they often end up having a tougher test than they expected. For us, though, these kinds of games are like touching the sky.”
The dynamics of modern football means that the top South American players will be playing against, rather than for, their region’s representatives.
While European champions Barcelona will be fielding Brazilian Neymar, Uruguayan Luis Suarez and Argentine Messi in a dream strikeforce, River Plate will have to make do with mainly journeymen professionals.
River Plate’s team is fairly typical of South American club football where, for many players, a career in Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East or Australia can be preferable to staying in the ramshackle domestic game.
River have three types of players in their squad — youngsters still hoping to move abroad, veterans who have returned home to play out their careers and those who are not good enough to make the move.
Their nickname, the “Millionaires”, is especially ironic given that their entire squad is worth less than Neymar or Messi alone.
Despite this, River, who have enjoyed a stunning revival under former Argentina midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, are still seen as the main challengers to Barcelona.
Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Auckland City, a team largely made-up of part-time professionals who last year reached the semi-finals and took South American champions San Lorenzo to extra-time, kick-off the tournament on Thursday.
The winners will progress to the quarter-finals — of which there are two — where they will face TP Mazembe in Osaka on Sunday with River Plate awaiting in the semi-finals.
Mazembe, from Democratic Republic of Congo, became the first African team to reach the final in 2010 when they stunned Brazil’s Internacional.
Their most easily identifiable player is Kidiaba, who celebrates goals by bouncing around his goalmouth on his back-side.
In the other quarter-final, also on Sunday, America face Guangzhou where Scolari is attempting to revive a career which has been blighted by Brazil’s 7-1 defeat by Germany at the World Cup on home soil last year.
The winners of that match meet Barcelona in the semi-final. Scolari, an old hand in knockout games, would like nothing more than a chance to try and knock the European champions out of their stride with some of his well-documented spoiling tactics.
Winning the Asian Champions League has already helped Scolari put his awful 2014 behind him.
“I’d like to summarise my answer in one sentence: the winners are those who will not give up,” the man known as Big Phil said after Guangzhou beat Al Ahli over two legs to win the Asian trophy.
“My next target is the Club World Cup, and why not? Because I have such a great team, great players and a great club and so, of course, we can realise that dream.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Ken Ferris)