Auckland City coach Ramon Tribulietx believes the only way to become truly competitive at the FIFA Club World Cup is to become a professional club, even though that is an unlikely scenario within the current context of New Zealand football.
As the team flew out of Japan on Friday afternoon after a narrow1-0 loss to J-League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Tribulietx admitted the gulf in class was difficult to overcome.
Auckland City enjoyed an extended build-up in Japan - including a match against a local second division team - and have lived as professionals for the past ten days - but ultimately that wasn't enough.
"I don't think anyone can understand how big a step this is - you can only understand if you are part of it," said Tribulietx. "It's a huge step - these guys are full time and they are technically very good, their touches are very sharp. It's very hard, unless you become professional we are going to be hanging on. We will be hanging on and competing but it will be very hard to be on an even level with these professional teams."
The New Zealand side held their own for long periods of the match despite Hiroshima creating several chances and were only undone by a world class goal in the 66th minute. Receiving the ball around 25 yards from goal, midfielder Tosihiro Aoyama smashed a bullet like shot that flew up before dipping violently into the net. Even the Japanese media were stunned by the quality of the strike, quizzing Aoyama post match to find out how he had managed such a shot without imparting spin on the ball.
"Their goal was top class," admitted Tribulietx. "Actually when it took off I thought it was going over but suddenly it dipped and went into the top corner. You can't do much about that."
From that moment the game noticeably opened up. Auckland City pushed forward in search of an equaliser - and created a couple of chances in the final stages - though Hiroshima although missed some gilt edged opportunities to kill the game off.
"We compete for 60-65 minutes until they scored an unbelievable goal," said Tribulietx. "After that we still got back up - they dropped off a bit and we had two or three chances. [Adam] Dickinson had an unbelievable chance but unfortunately he didn't put it away. You end up with a bittersweet feeling but I was proud of the way we didn't surrender; it could have been three or four more but we kept pushing."
Substitutes Luis Corrales and Emiliano Tade had a noticeable impact when they came on but Tribulietx defended his decision to not use them earlier, especially with Manel Exposito producing a fairly subdued display on the left hand side of a three pronged forward line.
"We had to be very careful," said Tribulietx, "if you go out too attacking against a team like Hiroshima you could end up going home with six or seven goals against you. We had to try and stay in the game and make the most of any chances that came our way."
Michael Burgess travelled to Japan with assistance from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.