Words: ACFC Media
Monday 28 November 2016
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Auckland City FC chairman Ivan Vuksich famously described the FIFA Club World Cup as the Navy Blues "very reason for being".
Now, with the club on the verge of departure for another Club World Cup adventure, Vuksich opens up on why he believes the Navy Blues journey has a lot further to go.
Part of that journey began in Japan exactly 10 years ago when the club qualified after winning the then OFC Club Championships at North Harbour Stadium on a wet, windswept and blustery night that saw the Navy Blues defeat AS Pirae 3-1 thanks to a hat-trick by the late Keryn Jordan.
The FIFA Club World Cup brought fame, riches and exposure on the world stage for the first time in the club's history. And it proved a daunting experience after defeats to Al-Ahly (0-2) and Jeonbuk Motors (0-3).
"When we went up to Japan the first time in 2006 I think it was, it was completely new territory. It was very exciting but in hindsight we were completely underprepared and had a style of play that didn’t look that flash and didn’t play that well up there.
"We tried hard but we were really underdone. Certainly in the last few years we’ve become a lot more prepared and we’re a lot more professional in the way we approach games and things like that.
"It’s always exciting for me and I’m sure it’s exciting for the players as the players. But for me it’s always been exciting because as a club it’s the pinnacle of what we can achieve in this environment.
AUDIO - Ivan Vuksich
"At times it feels like we’ve hit a bit of a glass ceiling – we can’t go much further but having said that the goal up there is to try and win a game in Japan because we haven’t done that to date. That’s the big challenge this year," he said.
The turning point in the club's fortunes came in the next edition. Waitakere United had won back-to-back OFC Champions League titles and after a home and away win over Koloale, the Navy Blues were back at the top table in the UAE 2009.
Vuksich cites that campaign and, of course, the bronze medal win in the tournament in Morocco two years ago as his highlights.
"The wins in UAE when we finished fifth and then in Morocco when we finished third are highlights. For some reason it seems slightly easier to get past the local champions in that part of the world than it is Japan where the winner will only be known a week before we play them.
"They are on top of their game, they’re fizzing, they’re on fire and generally have got fantastic support. And they’re really well structured and organised. It makes it a lot harder for us. Having said that we’ve thrown in an extra warm up game this time to try and lift the intensity of our play and get up to the intensity that’s required.
"We've got to try and get up to that intensity that they play at and the speed they play at and hence we’ve organised an extra warm up game this time.
"Ramon has been very conscious of that and very conscious of trying to break down a packed defence like they had last year. And guys have been working hard and creating lots of chances.
"We’ve certainly got the experience now in terms of knowing what to expect. Nothing’s going to be a surprise to us. So providing we’ve done our homework, and I’m sure we have, and everyone is fit and well, we’re in with a chance," he said.
When asked what possible edge Auckland City FC could have over the eventual J.League winners, Vuksich points to the Navy Blues track record at the tournament and a growing wealth of experience and opportunities learned from.
"It’s got to be a help it’s just that those players are used to playing at a much higher intensity than we are in our league here. The speed of these players is phenomenal, especially at the top end of their competition and that just takes some getting used to. They’re not necessarily physical, they don’t tend to be big players but they are very quick," he said.
Aside from the obvious attractions of playing at the FIFA Club World Cup for an eighth time, Vuksich adores the nation of the Japan and has built up a wonderful relationship with the Japan FA, local football contacts and several J.League clubs over the past decade.
"Japan is a fantastic country to visit. The hospitality is wonderful. The place is clean, tidy, organised and that really appeals to me and I think it appeals to lots of people actually.
"The food is beautiful, the hotel is lovely. Look, it’s a wonderful country to go to. But, when we’re in that FIFA environment it’s pretty intensive stuff.
"We’re training twice a day sometimes and the boys are going to bed early and there’s not much time to do anything other than be involved in football which I enjoy and I know the players enjoy. I think we give them one day off to have a look round the town a bit but other than that they are pretty full on.
"We've had a great relationship with the Japan FA over a long period of time and it would be remiss of me to not mention our friends at Morinaga who have been our front of shirt sponsors for two years.
"Their support of our club has been second to none and we promote their product in everything we do as often as possible. We're going to meet them in Japan to discuss many things and football is just one of those subjects," he said.