They were the amateur side who went 3-0 up against UAE Pro League champions Al Ain in their own backyard. But a fairytale start to the FIFA Club World Cup was not to be for plucky tournament debutants Team Wellington.
The spirited New Zealand side shocked the Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium as they went three goals to the good after 44 minutes. A meeting with the champions of Africa in the next round seemed in touching distance.
— Team Wellington ⚫️? (@TeamWelly) December 12, 2018
Not blessed with the luxury of full-time football like their professional counterparts, Team Welly were unable to prevent an Al Ain onslaught. Marcus Berg, who featured in all of Sweden’s games at the FIFA World Cup™, bagged an 85th-minute equaliser for the host side, much to the delight of the partisan home crowd.
— #ClubWC ? (@FIFAcom) December 12, 2018
Valiant Team Welly then suffered the agony of losing on penalties. It was a rollercoaster ride which left the players with varied emotions after the game, as second goalscorer Aaron Clapham described.
“It’s a mixture of disappointment and pride,” the midfielder said outside the Wellington dressing room. “I’m really proud of the team – everyone involved. It’s heart-breaking to lose on penalties. It’s a bit of a coin-toss at that stage but we’re really proud of the way we played.
“We came to play exciting football. We want to create chances but on the flip side, you sometimes concede a few too. It was an amazing occasion for us to be a part of.”
Clapham doubled Wellington’s lead after Mario Barcia’s sublime long-range strike broke the deadlock. The Argentinian’s memorable 11th-minute opener kicked off the tournament with a bang.
“I got the ball in the middle of the field, got a touch and thought: why not? It’s one of the best goals I’ve scored, for sure. I scored one similar playing in the final of the OFC Champions League in Wellington.” Playing in front of a five-figure crowd, testing themselves against the likes of Berg who featured at Russia 2018 and other seasoned UAE internationals – it’s a staggering contrast to what the part-timers are typically accustomed to at their humble home of David Farrington Park.
“There was about 15,000 more fans there than what we’re used to! I work a 40-hour-a-week job, so I’m training as a part-time player,” said Clapham, who works as a director of football at a local New Zealand club doing coaching education when not playing for Wellington.
“The rest of the squad are like that too and they [Al Ain] are bringing millionaires off the bench! It is a bit of a challenge but it’s something we were really excited about and proving the quality we had and being able to step up on world stage.”
Team Wellington’s foray on the global stage may have been a short one but it was certainly memorable, winning fans over with their fearless style, never-say-die attitude and family-like atmosphere amongst their side.
“We have a very young team, most of them are in their early 20s – I’m one of the oldest at 28,” said Barcia with a smile.
“So the Club World Cup has been a great experience for us. We’ll be stronger for this and look to come back.
“We’ll have a break now and be back in training on 3 January and focus on our league and then the OFC Champions League. The result hurts as we didn’t want to go home, but sometimes that’s football.”