Since 2013, three host nation clubs have gone on to reach the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2019. Al Sadd will be aiming to become the fourth one. The Qatar league champions will kick off their campaign Wednesday against Oceania winners Hienghene Sport in a play-off match Wednesday at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium.
A victory will give Sadd a place in the quarter-finals, where they will take on Monterrey of Mexico. With a potential semi-final or final encounter against European champions Liverpool – the tournament’s crowd-pullers – looming, the Qatar giants have much to look forward to.
Hienghene Sport manager Felix Tagawa (left) and captain Bertrand Kai address a press conference.
This will be Sadd’s second participation in the competition having played previously in the 2011 edition, where they finished third. The passionate Sadd fans will hope their team can repeat what Raja Casablanca (2013), Kashima Antlers (2016) and Al Ain (2018) did when the tournament was held in their home country. Sadd’s head coach Xavi Hernandez said it would be a difficult feat to achieve but not impossible.
“We are aware that it is difficult, but we are here to perform and play and we have one of the best players of this generation in the club’s history. They were part of the Qatar team which won the Asian Cup this year. We have a very good football philosophy and we are capable of continuing the achievements, but the task will be very difficult,” Xavi said.
While Sadd should be able to breeze past New Caledonia’s Hienghene, their recent form does not inspire too much confidence. They have lost three of their last four league games, with Xavi finding it hard to produce consistent results. Sadd’s dip in form coincided with their AFC Champions League semi-final exit, where they lost to eventual champions Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia.
Against Hienghene – who play in a 1,800-capacity stadium and were only formed in 1997 in the Pacific Island French territory of New Caledonia – Xavi would want his team to strike form. “I am very happy to participate in this big tournament, in which we will play the best clubs in the world. We are very excited, although we know very well the extent of the challenges that we will face throughout the competition, since all the clubs are the champions of their continents,” he said
“We will try to display our best level, and we will see what happens later because no one can know what will happen in football. We have to deal with the championship step by step,” Xavi added.
After playing four seasons for Sadd, the veteran Spain midfielder hung up his boots in May this year to take up the coaching reins. At 39, he is too early in his coaching career but the former Barcelona great knows how to taste success in big tournaments.
As a player, Xavi won two Club World Cup trophies in three attempts with Barcelona. Now the Spaniard will hope to draw his experience as a player to motivate Sadd players. “Now I have no relationship with Barcelona, because I am part of Al Sadd. I am very proud to coach at this club and train its players. It is an honour for me to lead the club in this big tournament. For the players, this tournament means a lot too,” Xavi added.
On being the first person to participate in the Club World Cup as a player and as a coach, Xavi said: “This is a great thing for me. I had no idea I will be the first one to do so. It gives me great motivation for tomorrow’s match to win, especially since I played in tournament on three occasions, and won it twice. But it is different this time.”
Meanwhile, for Hienghene players, it will be an opportunity of a lifetime. Manager Felix Tagawa’s team are the first New Caledonian side to win the OFC Champions League – having debuted in the competition just two years earlier – and qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, and only the second non-New Zealand side to do so.
It will be the first time a senior New Caledonian side – club or country – will compete in a global football tournament. The team is based in Hienghene, a remote part of New Caledonia with a population of just 2,500, five hours away from the country’s capital, Noumea.
Hienghene arrived in Doha ten days early for the tournament and have put in a week’s preparation. “We have nothing to lose and we are prepared, said coach Felix Tagawa. “They have good defenders and midfielders and a top striker in Baghdad Bounedjah but we have done well to qualify for this tournament and we want to give our all,” he added.