Guardiola's Arabian homecoming party
Excitement is visibly and audibly mounting here in the Middle East, that brave new world of football development and investment, as the FIFA Club World Cup begins in earnest in Abu Dhabi.
The region is rapidly making a name as a new market for football expansion, but not just for the big-money takeovers that have made news in the Premier League and elsewhere. Abu Dhabi's neighbours Qatar are in the midst of an ambitious bid for the 2022 World Cup, whilst Dubai recently hosted the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. It all smacks of much promise for this revolutionary new football region, but at present everyone here is talking about the arrival of a traditional club superpower from Spain.
Big guns FC Barcelona may be sorting out their final few tasks in the form of the Champions League and the La Liga derby against Espanyol at the weekend, but the Catalans are already making headlines in local newspapers and are certainly creating the biggest waves on the shores of the Arabian Sea. That is hardly surprising given that Pep Guardiola's marvellously fluid team has won every competition it entered last season, in the process racking up an impressive five trophies already.
Now a spectacular sixth beckons in Abu Dhabi, with a semi-final place already assured thanks to the favourable seeding. Local representatives Al Ahli are already eyeing a possible clash with the Catalans in that semi-final, even though they need to win a couple of tricky matches before then.
"Facing Barcelona is our great desire," said coach Mehdi Ali, the highly respected Emirati tactician who took the UAE youth team to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup quarter-finals this year. "We need to make sure that we concentrate. A win against Auckland can boost our confidence and help us go further in the tournament. We must think about this great chance we have to possibly play against Barcelona and I think we can do it. But, at the same time, we know that we first have work to do on Wednesday.''
Local organisers and sports officials across the region are attempting to utilise the arrival of the FIFA competition as a stepping stone to creating a vibrant fan culture in the region and developing the game at grassroots level through the inspirational effect the visiting teams will have. All the continental champions will certainly be intrigued by the uniquely designed stadia and a fan culture in which continuous and contagious drum beating combine with chants on megaphones and the obligatory 'haeb' nut eating. For any fans not acquainted with these delicious little seeds, the many vendors around the stadium should take care of the initiation process.
But the Asian participation in the tournament is not limited to the local side; there is also the recently crowned champion of the Asian Champions League to contend with in the form of the Pohang Steelers. The Koreans will be looking for a place in the final on the other side of the draw to Barcelona, but may face a tough challenge from Juan Veron's Estudiantes de La Plata. The two Asian teams may not be favourites to win the competition, but their participation will do much to further lift the profile of football across the continent, and a few surprises should also be well within the realms of possibility.
Still, the big favourites and the stars of the tournament are Barcelona. In their ranks is the superstar of modern day football, Lionel Messi. The "Flea", as he is affectionately known in Spain, has set his eyes on the trophy, saying: "It's the one trophy that the club has never won and one that has eluded most players at Barca so far."
The fascinating thing is that it is not only Messi whom rival players have to fear and fans revere, but also a whole range of players including the likes of Thierry Henry, Carlos Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, the lethal Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bojan Krikic and more recently Pedro.
Talking of Pedro, the young Spaniard could become the only Barcelona player to score in all the many competitions the Catalans have played this season, if he finds the net in Adu Dhabi. There is little doubt that he will do, judging by the ease with which Barcelona knock about the ball with their fantastic toca approach, and the liking that Pep Guardiola seems to have taken to the youngster.
Pep, meanwhile, or "Pepe", as Samuel Eto'o calls the man who discarded him on a famous "feeling", will have something of a coaching homecoming when he travels with his illustrious team after the weekend's derby against Espanyol. Why, you ask? Trust Soccernet to dig up interesting facts for you. Many believe the man who all of Cataluña reveres made his debut as a coach in the triple-winning season.
Think again: the midfielder actually acted as a player-coach in his last season at the Al-Ahli club over in neighbouring Qatar, if my sources are right. Either way, it promises to be a fantastic party for Guardiola if his side can register their sixth trophy of a magical season in the Arabian desert; while the tournament won't exactly be bad for the profile of football in the region either.