Ivan Vicelich foots it with the world’s best professionals at Fifa Club World Cup.
The defining image of Auckland City's inconceivable run at the Fifa Club World Cup came during yesterday's prizegiving.
Before the Auckland squad were invited on stage to accept their bronze medals for finishing third, Sepp Blatter and his Fifa delegation announced the tournament's individual award winners.
The Golden Ball, awarded to the best player at the tournament, went to Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, one of the world's greatest defenders who earns $180,000 a week. The Silver Ball went to Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's greatest footballer and one of the best players of all time. He is thought to earn $570,000 a week.
And the Bronze Ball went to Ivan Vicelich, a 38-year-old sports shop owner from Auckland. He gets paid little more than petrol money by Auckland City.
This juxtaposition with footballing heavyweights is something New Zealand fans have become used to over the past two weeks.
Auckland City - a merry mix of amateurs and semi-professionals - repeatedly mixed it with players and teams way above their pay grade. And Auckland repeatedly won.
After Vicelich's army brought the champions of Morocco and Africa to their knees (and lost to the South American champions in extra time in the semifinal), they turned their sights on North America in yesterday's third and fourth playoff.
Cruz Azul were a team of Mexican champions, boasting a player roster worth tens of millions of dollars. They have almost 100 years of history behind them and have won the Concacaf Champions League on a record six occasions. But for 45 minutes yesterday, they were made to look second-best. Auckland took the lead on the stroke of halftime with a well-taken Ryan De Vries goal, but in the second half Auckland's tank looked empty. The Oceania champions had played 330 minutes of football in 10 days before the game and, when Cruz Azul equalised after 56 minutes, defeat looked inevitable.
But Auckland hung on. They navigated the Mexican storm using coach Ramon Tribulietx's tactical brilliance and even created a late chance of their own to win it through Tim Payne, whose rasping shot was parried around the upright.
With Real Madrid waiting in the wings to play the final, there was no time for extra time. It was a welcome relief for Auckland, who triumphed in the penalty shootout.
As well as being strategically superb, supremely conditioned and cool under pressure, Auckland seem comfortable in penalty shootouts. As the players wheeled away in delight after their second shootout win in two weeks, the reality of what they achieved started to sink in.
"The whole thing is absolutely incredible," Vicelich said. "For a player or a team to finish third at a Fifa tournament is so hard and so incredible.
"To experience the World Cup was a dream come true and to win a bronze medal here is another dream come true. We're saying over here that bronze is the new gold."
Vicelich said another highlight for him was when Real Madrid coach Carlos Ancellotti approached him and complimented the way he and Auckland had played.
Tribulietx said everyone at the club was buzzing: "A team from New Zealand got a medal at a Fifa championship. No one ever expected that to happen.
"I hope our reputation around the world grows now. I hope now people will respect New Zealand football a little bit more than in the past.
"We are very small but we have proved we can play the game on the biggest stage. Hopefully we will now have more interest in the country."
High flyers get last taste of big time
Auckland City will have one last taste of the international limelight before they come crashing back down to Earth next month in New Zealand's amateur ASB Premiership competition.
The Fifa Club World Cup bronze medal winners will play a friendly against Japan in Australia on January 4 before returning to continue their ASB Premiership defence when they host the Wellington Phoenix reserves on January 11.
It remains to be seen how many of the Auckland squad will be lured away from the franchise by professional clubs following their outstanding form on the world stage. Many, like impressive defender John Irving, joined Auckland City in the hope of being scouted while playing on the world stage.
Auckland captain Ivan Vicelich said the quality of Auckland's players had not gone unnoticed.
"We've done so well here that there are already people knocking on the doors of four or five guys in the squad," he said. The transition from playing in front of 40,000 fans in Morocco, and many more on live television, to playing in front of a few hundred in New Zealand might be quite sobering for those who stay, although Auckland still have their work cut out to chase down ASB Premiership leaders Team Wellington. After beating Auckland 4-0 three weeks ago, Wellington have opened up a five-point lead. Auckland coach Ramon Tribulietx will tomorrow leave for a holiday in Europe where he can reflect on what he's achieved and evaluate his next step, as the professional job offers will surely come flooding in.
- Steven Holloway
3 Things about City heroics
Money in the bank
Auckland City will bank about 60 per cent of their total winnings of $3.22 million, although some will be used to pay off debts.
In all four of their games at the Club World Cup, coach Ramon Tribulietx's side weren't beaten in 90 minutes. San Lorenzo triumphed in the semifinal after extra time.
Champion of champions
They beat the champions of Morocco, Africa and North America during their remarkable run and went down to the South American champions in extra time.