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Auckland City vs. Arabia

Tomorrow morning Auckland City FC – joyfully sponsored by Ockham – take on Al Ittihad of Arabia in the first match of the FIFA Club World Cup. In their 11th appearance at the cup, the Oceania champions will carry more than just the hopes of their fans; they bear the flag of every underdog narrative ever told.

Here we have Auckland City, stepping onto a football pitch in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to face a cast of footballing Goliaths that seem concocted in some footballing fever dream: Manchester City, champions of Europe; Al Ahly, African Club of the Century, Club León of Mexico, Japan's Urawa Reds, and Copa Libertadores champions, Fluminense FC.

But the first act is not so much a match as a grand theatre of contrasts. In one corner, hosts, Al Ittihad, with an all-star lineup of Ballon d’Or winners, UEFA Champions League gladiators, World Cup-winning deities, and the crème de la crème of the Premier League, titans powered by an annual salary bill of $350 million.

In the other corner, representing the real world, we have Auckland City. A delightful hodgepodge of everyday Joes: a teacher, a painter, a courier, a realtor, a Coca-Cola salesman, and a car detailer. A team of amateurs. Auckland captain Cam Howieson wryly assesses his team’s prospects: “It’s going to be a really tough one.”

Auckland’s record, which includes 11 Oceania championships and a storied third placing at the 2014 Club World Champs, attests to their ability to dance with the giants. But what lies ahead is unprecedented. The narrative backdrop? A Saudi sporting revolution, masterminded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – and fuelled by the country’s eye-watering $1.1 trillion Public Investment Fund –  has transformed Al Ittihad into a juggernaut that has rewritten football economics.

This influx of wealth has seen Al-Ittihad acquire a constellation of football’s shiniest stars including French legends Karim Benzema and and N’Golo Kante, and Brazilian (and Liverpool) defensive machine, Fabinho. Unencumbered by the relative fiscal restraint of their European counterparts, Al Ittihad’s recruitment strategy has been less about building a team and more about assembling a pantheon of football gods.

“This isn’t just David versus Goliath,” says Ockham CEO, Will Deihl. “It’s David versus a Goliath who’s been lifting weights, guzzling protein shakes and consulting Sun Tzu.

“We’re going into battle against Karim Benzema. BENZEMA. Captain of Real Madrid: their second highest goalscorer of all time. Five times Champion’s League winner. 2018 World Cup champion. Ballon d’Or winner in 2022.

“Then there’s Kante, Fabinho, Luiz Felipe and all the rest. But so what. We’ve got Ryan De Vries, Emiliano Tade, Adam Mitchell and Tong Zhou.

“It’s game on!”

“This isn’t just David versus Goliath. It’s David versus a Goliath who’s been lifting weights, guzzling protein shakes and consulting Sun Tzu."

Ockham CEO, Will Deihl

Reflecting on the task ahead, Howieson the captain fleetingly becomes the fan. “Sometimes when you mix the best players in the world it doesn’t gel, but I’ve been watching their games and it has gelled. This will be the toughest game in our club’s history.

“It’s awesome to know we’re coming up against those players. Some of our boys will be star-struck. The only time we see Kante and Benzema is on the TV. It will be surreal, but it will be a great experience.”

The road to Jeddah, a 50-match slog across several tournaments, speaks of a grit and determination. And Howieson’s strategy for the 'morrow?

A decent dollop of destiny, defensive fortitude, seizing rare chances, and unwavering belief. Because in football, the stage is set not just for the giants but for the dreamers, the battlers, the believers. “You need a lot of luck,” Howieson continues. “Auckland are always favourites to win our competitions at home. Then we have to flip the switch and go to the Club World Cup as the underdogs. We’re used to having the ball 70, 80 per cent of the time in New Zealand. Now we’ll have to defend for 70, 80 minutes. It’s very tough and mentally draining.”

So, hang tough – and defend, defend and defend. Limit Al Ittihad’s offensive arsenal. “Benzema and the other attacking players they have can kill a game off in an instant, so we have to minimise their opportunities. Then it’s down to hard work and belief.

“Nothing is impossible. Football’s a crazy game. We always see upsets in the world of football. Auckland have pulled off upsets before. Why can’t we do it again at this Club World Cup?”

FIFA Club World Cup Saudi Arabia 2023
Auckland City FC vs Auckland City FC vs Al Ittihad 
Wednesday 12 December
Kick-off: 7am.
📷 Phototek's Shane Wenzlick.
Live on FIFA+ – and at the Navy Blues' citadel at Kiwitea Street (free tea and coffee provided).