Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Spanish bring tiki taka to Auckland

Albert Riera and Manel Exposito have resurrected their careers at Auckland City. Photo / Getty Images
Albert Riera has resurrected his career at Auckland City. Photo / Getty Images
Albert Riera has resurrected his career at Auckland City. Photo / Getty Images

Though they both arrived via unlikely routes, Albert Riera and Manel Exposito loom as key men in Auckland City's quest to upset massive odds in Japan next week.

The ASB Premiership club make their fifth appearance at the Fifa Club World Cup on Thursday, taking on recently crowned J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

It remains a huge task - Auckland are the only amateur club in the competition against fully professional sides - but the Spanish duo are a timely reminder of the unpredictability of the global game.

One came to New Zealand more focused on fun than football, while the other was once alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Fernando Torres before serious injury sabotaged his dreams.

Riera worked in Spain as an ambulance driver and had played for various Spanish lower division semi-professional sides, before deciding to take a year off work to go travelling in Australasia.

"The only reason I came to New Zealand was to travel, see another country and experience another language," says Riera. "I didn't think for a moment about football. A week before I came - on Fathers' Day to be exact - my family started talking about clubs in New Zealand. My reaction was that I wanted to forget about football and travel with my friends."

Still, Riera was persuaded and an online search found Auckland City, with fellow Catalan Ramon Tribulietx as coach. A few facebook chats ensued and Tribulietx promised him a trial but nothing beyond that.

"I spoke to a few people but you never know what to expect," says Tribulietx. "Just because someone is Spanish doesn't mean you are going to sign them. But Albert impressed us from the start and fits in well with the style we are trying to play."

"Albert has been a revelation for us," says captain Ivan Vicelich. "The way he came to the club was a bit unusual but he has turned out to be just what we needed."

Riera is tenacious and has a large engine. He occasionally pops up with goals from midfield but is mainly focused on tackling and quick distribution, with the tiki taka style City are attempting to play.

EXPOSITO IS an example of how dreams die hard. The striker made his first team debut for Barcelona on the same day as one Lionel Messi (November 16, 2003), perhaps a constant reminder of what might have been.

The opposition was Jose Mourinho's Porto, featuring Deco, while Ricardo Carvalho was marking the 20-year-old Exposito. He played several more matches (all friendlies) for Barcelona without ever establishing himself amid the fierce competition at Camp Nou. He was good enough to feature for Barcelona B before a broken ankle stalled his progress and he eventually moved on to Atletico Madrid before another injury setback led him to various lower league clubs.

"My career was a little bit strange," says Exposito. "I was at Barcelona and at one moment, I thought I would be a professional and playing La Liga all my life. Later, you get injured and your life changes in a second. You realise everything is different and it is hard to understand that and get back to fitness. I went to a few clubs in Spain but it wasn't as professional as I thought. They don't pay you, they weren't honest with you - I didn't feel like a real footballer," says Exposito, who was City's golden boot last season with 15 goals in 23 games.

"You think maybe you did something wrong to not be playing at that level. But after my injuries, I just think about enjoying each game, enjoying each training. Anyway, the Club World Cup is huge in Spain and all my ex-team-mates are jealous that I am going there again."

Exposito retains friendships with former Barcelona and Atletico team-mates, many of whom are playing in La Liga or the English Premier League - "though obviously not with Messi and Xavi because they live in an another world."

He remembers the teenage Messi as a shy but astonishing talent who lit up practice fields and stadiums with his talent.

"He was born to be the best player in the world. He was 16 when Frank Rijkaard gave him his debut and he saw the innate ability that we all appreciate now."

Auckland's Catalan connection have taken valuable lessons from last year's 2-0 loss to Kashiwa Reysol and are bullish about their prospects in Yokohama. Both agree the team were over-anxious and paid their opponents - and the occasion - far too much respect.

"Maybe it was a little bit big for us last year and we got a bit too stressed," says 30-year-old Exposito. "We had prepared well but being out there at a Club World Cup is another story. The Japanese team were flying around everywhere, the ball was moving so fast and the field seemed so short. We conceded two goals in the first half and in a game like that, you are dead."

"It feels like we have a better chance (this year)," says Riera, 27. "We are a year more experienced with our style, systems and each other, and know that anything can happen in football. It's still 11 against 11."

- Herald on Sunday

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