After four failed bids to host the World Cup, Morocco finally gets to stage a world soccer championship over the next 10 days although this one is little more than a consolation prize.
The North African country will stage the Club World Cup, the quirky and, in Europe at least, rather unloved tournament featuring the club champions of each continent, whose participants this year range from part-timers Auckland City to all-conquering Bayern Munich.
The cast also includes ever-grinning Brazilian Ronaldinho, who will lead Atletico Mineiro’s challenge from South America, Italy World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi and Mohamed Aboutrika, one of the finest African players of his generation.
Ronaldinho, apparently out of the running for a place in Brazil’s World Cup squad, has recovered from a hamstring injury just in time for what could be his last appearance at an international tournament.
Lippi will lead Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande, the first Chinese side ever to take part, and Aboutrika, 35, is in the squad of African champions Ah Ahli after he was persuaded to postpone his retirement.
Bayern and Brazil’s Atletico Mineiro will parachute in at the semifinal stage next week, while the tournament gets under way on Wednesday evening in Agadir when Raja Casablanca, who qualified as champions of the host nation, face Oceania representatives Auckland.
Rather oddly, Raja warmed up by the tournament by sacking Mohamed Fakhir, the coach who led them to the Moroccan league title last season, and replaced him with Faouzi Benzarti.
The Tunisian, who has coached six clubs in his homeland and the national side, has had less than a week to prepare his team.
“This is not my first experience of taking charge of a club during a critical time. For me, trust in the group is the most important thing, trust,” Benzarti told reporters on Monday.
“The last three or four days show we have time to do something together. If we co-operate we can make progress very quickly.”
Auckland, champions of the Oceania confederation which is dominated by New Zealand, are taking part for the fourth time in five years and will be attempting to progress beyond the preliminary round for only the second time.
The quarterfinals, which somewhat confusingly feature only four teams, will be played in a double-header in Agadir on Saturday.
CONCACAF champions Monterrey, back for a third successive appearance and hoping to become the first Mexican team to reach the final, will face either Raja Casablanca or Auckland for a place against Atletico Mineiro in Wednesday’s semifinal.
Saturday’s other quarterfinal pits Guangzhou against African champions Al Ahli from Egypt, with the winners to play Bayern on Tuesday.
“Winning this competition would crown the treble we won last season,” Bayern forward Thomas Mueller told Fifa.com.
Al Ahli won the African Champions League in November despite not playing any domestic football after the Egyptian championship was cancelled earlier this year.
Aboutrika had planned to retire after the final against Orlando Pirates but was persuaded to play in Morocco and is included in their squad.
The competition has been played in its current form every year since 2005 after being spawned by the old Intercontinental Cup which was played annually in Tokyo between the champions of Europe and South America.
As much as anything, it has become an unhappy illustration of the weakness of club football outside Europe. No European team has ever failed to reach the final since 2005 and they have lifted the trophy on all but two occasions, winning five finals in a row before Corinthians beat Chelsea last year.
Africa is staging the tournament for the first time, Morocco having won the right to host it two years ago after rivals Iran, South Africa and United Arab Emirates withdrew. Two stadiums will be used, in the coastal resort of Agadir and in Marrakech.
Morocco, which hosted the African Nations Cup in 1988, bid to stage the 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2010 World Cups. They came close twice, losing out by 10 votes to seven to the United States in the race for the 1994 tournament and were beaten by 14 votes to 10 by South Africa for 2010.