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South Korea

Tough test for Asian soccer as Club World Cup kicks off

South Korean and Japanese sides carry regional hopes against world's best teams

SEOUL -- South Korea's Jeonbuk Motors and Kashima Antlers of Japan are hoping to make history at the 2016 soccer Club World Cup by giving Asia a first-ever representative in the final, which will take place in the Japanese city of Yokohama on Dec. 18.

The annual tournament kicks off on Dec. 8 and features the club champions of each of the six regional confederations of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's governing body. Japan also has a club in the competition, as the host nation.

After an initial tournament in 2000 in Brazil, the competition moved to an annual schedule in 2005. Of the 12 editions to date, eight have been won by European teams, with the other four going to South America. European and South American teams, traditionally the strongest, play fewer games in the tournament than those from weaker regions.

Asian teams have reached the semifinal eight times, but have yet to take the extra step to the final. With none of the continent's four national teams managing to win a single game at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it is important for the sport that Asian clubs have a successful tournament.

"With Asia's national teams still largely underperforming at international level, the Club World Cup is therefore an acid test of the continent's progress," said Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Business at Salford University in the U.K.

"This is the one occasion each year when Asia's teams pit themselves against the big teams from Europe and South America. This is the biggest chance to demonstrate how strong Asian football actually is."

Taking a long-term view, Asian prospects in the competition have been improved by the Chinese Super League, which has been making international headlines as clubs, funded largely by the private sector, have invested large amounts on world famous players and coaches.

Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of China's last six domestic titles, also won the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015. In last year's competition Guangzhou, coached by the Brazilian 2002 World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari, defeated Club America, the Mexican champions of the FIFA region covering North and Central America and the Caribbean, before losing to Barcelona, the European champions, in the semifinal.

However, no Chinese club has made it to the Club World Cup this year, putting the onus on clubs from other countries. "The bar has been set high, and it is for the other Asian clubs to at least match, if not go further than Guangzhou," said Chadwick.

Guangzhou's successor as Asian Champions League winner is Jeonbuk. The South Koreans first won the continental title in 2006 and subsequently appeared at the global tournament, losing at the quarterfinal stage to Club America. The same Mexican opposition awaits on Dec. 11 in Osaka.

"Club America is as desperate as we are to get to the next round," said Jeonbuk coach Choi Kang-hee, who was also in charge a decade ago. "We know this is a good team. but we are a good team too. We are representing Asia and are proud to do so, but there is a responsibility to for us to give everything we have."

Higher standard

There are two prizes at stake for Jeonbuk. One is the possibility of making the final, but the other is the potential reward for defeating Club America -- a game against Real Madrid in the semifinal. The Spanish club is the most successful team in European history, with 11 continental titles, and is packed with world-famous stars such as Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and the Welsh striker Gareth Bale.

Such a prospect can become a distraction. "We are focusing on the first game and not thinking about what comes after," said Choi, who is missing a number of players through injury. "But we are looking forward to testing ourselves against the best teams in the world. It is a higher standard than Asia, and we are ready."

Japanese teams have struggled to reach the latter stages of the Asian Champions League in recent years, but will be represented by Kashima for the first time on the global stage. The team, from Ibaraki, won its eighth J. League title on Dec. 3, defeating Urawa Reds in the championship play-off.

"We want to give a good performance as the J. League representatives and reach the final," said Kashima manager Masatada Ishii at a Yokohama press conference. "We've switched mentally. We'll aim to fight like Japanese champions. There might be fatigue but I can feel the excitement building."

Kashima will need to to defeat Oceania's champions Auckland City in the opening game to earn a quarterfinal meeting with Mamelodi Sundowns FC of South Africa. After that comes Atletico Nacional, South America's champions, from Colombia.

It is a longer route to the final than that facing Jeonbuk, but the opposition may not be quite so taxing.

"It is hard to see the Asian teams reaching the final," said Biplav Gautam, a former head of the Asian Football Confederation. "Kashima would need to win three matches to get there, and Jeonbuk has a tough draw against [Club] America and then Real Madrid. The level of Asian club football is still behind Europe and the Americas."

If Asia fails, there is always a chance that Oceania, the world's smallest soccer confederation, can surprise. Auckland City is preparing for a sixth successive appearance at the tournament, having reached third place in 2014, losing 2-1 to San Lorenzo of Argentina after extra time. The New Zealand team, which lost 2-0 to Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2015, has lots of experience in this tournament.

"Playing in these games is a huge motivator to perform at your best because it's what you've always dreamed of doing," said Auckland defender Darren White. "The chance to play in front of teams like this, and crowds to match, don't come along very often so it's important to make the most of the opportunity."

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