Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Underdogs City unfazed by foes' class

Relative amateurs taking on Japanese side trained at professional level from youth.

It is a given that Auckland City will be massive underdogs in the Fifa Club World Cup match against Sanford Hiroshima tonight and being surrounded by the intense soccer scene here in Japan does nothing to quell that belief.

To truly understand the scale of Auckland's task, it helps to take a walk downtown from Yokohama International Stadium.

Near the waterfront is the headquarters of local J-League side Yokohama Marinos, where the club is holding trials for hundreds of youngsters aged from 10 to 14 years old.

Like every club in Japan's top professional league, the Marinos have numerous teams at every age level. Aspiring players are assessed every six months - pass and they stay on the programme - fail and someone steps in to take their place.

The ones who prosper are virtual professionals by their late teens, giving a huge base of talent to each J-League side.

In contrast Auckland City are essentially an amateur side. Players fit training around work commitments - there is a plumber, a foreign exchange treasury dealer, a warehouse store man, a delivery driver, a male model and a television producer among their squad.

It seems a herculean task but coach Ramon Tribulietx feels anything is possible.

"We have to believe we can give a good performance," said Tribulietx, "if we do that then anything is possible. That is the beauty of football."

The team have trained well this week, sometimes in challenging conditions as an intense cold front swept across Japan. Tonight the Auckland side want to exhibit their short passing, possession-based style of football but are ready to adapt, given they may have to exist on scraps for long periods.

"We can change our style to suit," said captain Ivan Vicelich, "we know how we want to play but if we need to play longer at times we will."

A direct, more abrasive approach could be profitable, as it will be difficult for the ASB Premiership side to match the ball speed and movement of Hiroshima. The southern Japanese side have a renowned youth academy, seen as one of the best in Japan and most of their present squad are graduates. They are overwhelming favourites but have left no stone unturned - they even flew representatives to New Zealand to watch Auckland City play last month - and will look to mount early pressure and kill the game off.

This is Auckland City's fourth appearance at Fifa's flagship club tournament, with a creditable record of two wins (both in 2009) and four losses.

In a notable first, the match will also mark the long anticipated debut of goal line technology in football, after Fifa approved two providers - GoalRef and Hawk Eye back in July.

Michael Burgess travelled to Japan with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Fifa club tournament

Auckland City v Sanford Hiroshima
11.45 tonight, live SS3.

- NZ Herald

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