Real Madrid must view Club World Cup as a springboard not a distraction
There is a scene in the iconic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia in which the protagonist -- T.E. Lawrence -- lights a cigarette and proceeds to nonchalantly extinguish the match between his thumb and his forefinger. Corporal William Potter looks on with a puzzled expression. When he thinks Lawrence is looking away, Potter surreptitiously tries to repeat the trick himself.
"Ooh, it damn well hurts!," he winces, frantically shaking his hand.
"Certainly it hurts," responds Lawrence, sagely.
"What's the trick then?"
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."
Real Madrid have jetted to Abu Dhabi to defend the FIFA Club World Cup, leaving behind a La Liga table in which they sit eight points behind leaders Barcelona. Upon their return to Spain, they will face their Catalan rivals in a high-pressure Clasico on Dec. 23. The Club World Cup is a distraction, an irritation. There are more pressing matters at hand.
The trick for Madrid is not minding the distraction. To embrace it, even. Because victory in the Club World Cup could turn an energy-sapping mid-season obligation into a foundation for momentum after the winter break.
The competition flourished in its nascent years in the 1960s. It was known as the Intercontinental Cup in that era, contested by the champions of Europe and South America. The 1962 final pitted Santos against Benfica, and Pele against Eusebio. Two evocative teams spearheaded by two of the best players of all time. Pele later cited his performance in that match as one of the best of his career.
Celtic travelled to Buenos Aires five years later to joust with Racing Club in a match marred by the dark arts. There was spitting, cynical fouls, and in the second leg at El Cilindro, Celtic 'keeper Ronnie Simpson was substituted after receiving a blow to the head -- reportedly a stone fired from a catapult in the heaving tide of supporters behind the goal.
The Club World Cup of yesteryear may not have been a fluffy advertisement for fair play. But it really, really mattered. That prestige has faded in to the mists of time, in Europe at least. The globalisation of football has, paradoxically, hauled talented players to Europe from across the world, like iron filings attracted to a lucrative magnet. The Champions League is the crowning glory and the Club World Cup is the obligation that follows.
Former Real Madrid right-back Michel Salgado has stated "the tournament merits attention," which comes as little surprise given the 42-year-old's twin ambassadorial roles for both the Club World Cup itself, and La Liga in the United Arab Emirates.
Yet Salgado offered some insight beyond the bluster.
"Winning trophies can bring this extra boost, the extra vitamins that the team needs sometimes during a season. Madrid can come out of it reinforced," he suggested.
For all of the tournament's flaws, his point holds weight. Madrid travelled east on the back of a scintillating 5-0 victory over Sevilla at the Bernabeu. Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, and Gareth Bale watched from the stands due to a combination of suspension and injury. With prudent squad rotation, the Club World Cup will provide an opportunity to keep those players ticking over ahead of El Clasico.
Zinedine Zidane calmed expectations upon arrival in Abu Dhabi. "It's not going to be easy," he warned, "we're not going to have easy matches and we're not going to win just because we're Real Madrid."
That may be the reality, but it is not necessarily the perception. The Club World Cup can be a thankless task for the European representatives, precisely because they are expected to win. The tournament arrives at an inopportune point of the season, when bodies are tired and minds are elsewhere. Yet anything but victory constitutes an upset.
Madrid will get their tournament underway against local side Al Jazira on Wednesday evening. Brazil's Gremio -- the winners of the Copa Libertadores -- will await in the final on Saturday.
Al Jazira ground their way to the semifinal stage with consecutive 1-0 victories against Auckland City and Urawa Reds. Wily coach Henk ten Cate -- a former assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona -- has played up to the role of underdog. He delivered a frank response when asked if he expected to progress this far in the competition: "No, no... not with this team. There are teams with a lot more quality than us." With 27 years of coaching experience, ten Cate knows how to release the ease the pressure on his team.
Marcelo pithily summarised the mentality that Madrid must adopt. "For me, the most important title is always the next one," mused the left-back. A Club World Cup title may not assume a prominent position at the front of the trophy cabinet. But Real Madrid must remember: the trick is not minding the distraction.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93