Is the Club World Cup turning football on its head?
Background image: Save the Dream, CC BY 2.0
When New Caledonian minnows Hienghene Sport ran out for the Club World Cup opener on Wednesday night, annihilation seemed inevitable. The obscure Oceanic team fielded a squad of amateurs wearing shirts with large white patches on the front where old sponsor labels had been peeled off by Al Sadd’s global mercenaries. It would not have been unreasonable to expect the reigning champions of the Qatari Stars League to notch double figures against their plucky opponents.
But the Middle Eastern giants found themselves with a game on their hands. Heyhen threw men behind the ball but were effective on the counter. Their beach soccer honed skills played to their advantage, wrong-footing their monied opponents through flicks, tricks and overhead kicks.
Most regions of the world adopt their own distinct playing style; British football is often maligned for its sheer physicality. Continental teams earn praise for their quick passing and technical ability. North American outfits tend to favour an overly technical style. Heyhen ran out on the world stage and gave a perfect demonstration of the rarely seen Oceanic football culture.
Right-back Joseph Athale embodied the style. An enormously enjoyable player to watch, he caught the eye with innumerable goalline clearances, a tendency towards outrageous trickery and an unusual afro/dreadlock combination. His teammates displayed similar quirks. While not always effective, they entertained their audience.
The match itself lived up to expectations. Al Sadd opened the scoring midway through the first half, but Hienghène Sport found the equaliser just after the break. Antoine Roine’s powerful effort, initially disallowed for a foul, was awarded after a VAR check.
When extra time rolled around, it looked as if the islanders would take the game to penalties. A shoot-out win promised a tie against Mexican side Monterrey. They’d be one more upset away from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The town they represent has a population of just 2,500 people 🤯
But Bertrand Kai says Hienghene Sport are not at the #ClubWC to make up the numbers 🇳🇨🇫🇷💪
Then the game took a strange turn. Defender Cedric Sansot passed the ball to goalkeeper Rocky Nyikeine, who had kept his side in the game with a string of athletic saves. Instead of hoofing it upfield, Nyikeine simply scooped the ball up, seemingly unaware this was prohibited. Al-Sadd made short work of an indirect free-kick from six yards out, blasting past Heyhen’s goalline wall. As Al Sadd celebrated, the Oceania Champions League goalkeeper of the year lay weeping on the ground.
Some would say shambolic. But what’s not to like about a game like this? Who could fail to appreciate the drama, the narrative? The disparity between the teams was only part of the story. The flair, the tenacity and sheer style of the New Caledonians differed from the normal style of play seen at major competitions. When combined with the emotional rollercoaster of a VAR approved equaliser and Nyekiene's mental evisceration, the product was something like a Hollywood blockbuster.
It bodes well for FIFA’s plans to increase the number of World Cup competitors. The 2026 tournament in North America will feature 48 participants, a 50% increase on the current 32. The motive is profit, of course, but the result will mean more of football's lifeblood. Smaller nations will send their representatives. The audience can thrill to new styles of play, obscure players and sporting stories that give goosebumps. The finals will remain the preserve of big guns but for those of us looking for something else, a sideshow at the circus, a support act for the superstars, more teams from the forgotten corners of the globe competing in the world cup can only be a good thing.