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SPORTS | 09-02-2023 14:56

Ex-River idol Ramón Díaz leads Al-Hilal into Club World Cup final

The mighty Real Madrid lie in wait, but there is still a slim chance that the Club World Cup could yet pass through Argentine hands in Saturday's final.

Paradoxically enough for a nation so rich in football history and folklore, some of the greatest achievements in Argentine football have been forged on the other side of the world.

Victory over their European counterparts in the now-defunct Intercontinental Cup formed the pinnacle of club success for Argentina's greatest sides, crowning moments of glory to cap the already glittering feat of bringing home the Copa Libertadores. Boca Juniors' golden age of the early 2000s, to take just one example, would have been impressive enough taking into consideration merely their continental exploits; but beating legendary Real Madrid and Milan sides in 2000 and 2003 assured Carlos Bianchi's grizzled troops a place in the all-time annals – and in Japanese hearts for a generation as they lifted the trophy in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Alas, the always intriguing Intercontinental Cup passed into posterity nine years ago on the lowest ebb imaginable, a dull goalless draw and shoot-out between workmanlike Porto and Once Caldas. Its successor, the Club World Cup, has proved a far more difficult prospect altogether; and not just for Argentine challengers, but South America in general.

On Tuesday Flamengo became the latest Libertadores winner to crash out of the tournament, suffering a shock 3-2 defeat to Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal and failing to reach the final of the competition. In doing so the star-studded Rio de Janeiro team followed in the footsteps of rivals Palmeiras, who fell to Monterrey in 2020's semi-final, and River Plate, who were downed by Al Ain following their last Libertadores triumph back in 2018. No South American team has won the tournament since Corinthians a decade ago; more damning still, of the last seven Club World Cup participants four have not even reached the decisive stage.

It is of course easy to plead mitigating circumstances. Coming as it traditionally does at the end of the year, the tournament is a punishing final obstacle in the South American calendar for clubs already exhausted from the year's exertions. Pushing it into February, as has been the case since the pandemic hit, only increases the odds, as the continent's best now play while almost still in pre-season, with precious little time to get into gear before facing off against their peers.

Even so, it is impossible to overlook the gulf that separates the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Even Brazil's biggest clubs, who enjoy financial prosperity that dwarfs anything their continental rivals can muster, are poor relations to the likes of Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea or any potential Champions League winner, running on budgets that would barely keep those giants running for a week. Anything can happen in the game of football, that much is clear, but it would take momentous, hitherto unforeseen change before South American sides can even dream of playing on an even field with those cash-rich monsters.

Do not fret just yet, though. Al-Hilal's surprise passage to the final does leave plenty of Argentine interest in the final. The third goal against Flamengo was netted by former Racing Club prospect Luciano Vietto, who earlier won two penalties for his team; while on the bench is none other than coaching veteran and River idol Ramón Díaz, shining in what is his 15th posting during his long, well-travelled career.

In 1996 the Intercontinental Cup eluded Díaz in agonising circumstances when Juventus, packed with stars likes Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Alen Boksic and Alessandro Del Piero, broke the hearts of his great River team with a late Del Piero penalty. The challenge will be even greater this time as mighty Madrid lie in wait, but if Díaz has proven one thing over the years it is that his teams have an annoying habit of not knowing when they are beaten – leaving a chance, however slim, that the Club World Cup could yet pass through Argentine hands in Saturday's final.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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