By Isidore Lewis
One shock result was enough for FIFA, thank you very much. Given the fact that everyone likes an underdog, it’s safe to say that no-one likes two. A final of unknowns would have been a disaster.
Thank goodness, then, for Inter Milan.
Under pressure and under par in the weeks and months leading up to the tournament, the Italian giants made it through to Saturday’s Club World Cup final after a resounding victory over Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night.
It was a crucial victory for a side that currently lie sixth in Serie A, ten points off leaders and local rivals AC Milan, on the back of a poor run which – discounting Wednesday’s game – has seen them win just two (out of nine) games in all competitions since the start of November.
For a side that has spent the best part of five years dominating Serie A, it’s hardly the start new coach Rafael Benitez would have hoped for.
Nor the fans. Nor Inter President Massimo Moratti.
Benitez is, as Italian newspaper La Stampa put it, “walking with a pistol to his temple”. Moratti, however, has in recent times been diplomatic in responding to speculation surrounding the Spaniard’s future, choosing instead to focus on what is in front of them:
“The other day I gave Inter’s season a 6.5 (out of ten)”, said Moratti, before adding that: “if we win the Club World Cup, I will increase it by 3.5 points”.
His words will come as music to the ears of FIFA and, indeed, anyone else with a vested interest in making sure the Club World Cup is a success, not least the sponsors and broadcasters who have spent huge amounts of money indirectly banking on Inter Milan reaching the final.
Having beaten Seongnam, Inter will now face TP Mazembe of Congo, whose shock victory over South American champions Internacional on Tuesday provided a fairytale story for the competition, vindicating FIFA’s decision to open the tournament up to wider nations.
The irony here, of course, is that too much success for weaker teams is equally undesirable. Had Inter Milan failed too, it would have greatly undermined the success story of Mazembe, not to mention the overall interest in and credibility of the competition.
They didn’t, however, and so it won’t. In fact, the story so far could hardly have gone better. Not since, well, last year actually – when Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola wept on the touchline – has the competition been given such a boost in PR.
What they have now is a classic David versus Goliath encounter: The aristocrats and European giants against an unknown African side. Perfect.
What’s more, Inter care. A lot.
The expressions on the players’ faces on Wednesday night said it all. 37yr old captain Javier Zanetti celebrated his goal like an excited boy; and, having opened the scoring after just three minutes, Dejan Stankovic even ran half the pitch for a hug from subsititute Macro Materazzi.
More than talent and more than beautiful football, what a tournament that has in the past come into question needs is a big team that really, really cares. Now, in Inter, that is exactly what the Club World Cup has got.