New Zealand 2015 Mascot fires up crowds in Auckland and Wellington(FIFA.com) 30 Nov 2014

The Official Mascot for the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 was launched today at Auckland’s Santa Parade – marking six months until the biggest celebration of global football hits New Zealand.

The mascot, a black sheep with attitude named Wooliam, proved a hit with kids and adults as he gambolled along the route before mingling with the guests at Santa’s post-parade party.

After his appearance in Auckland he was whisked down to Wellington where he performed with his hip-hop backing dancers during the half-time break in the Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne City game.

Dave Beeche, CEO of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Local Organising Committee (LOC) said he had been delighted with the enthusiastic reception Wooliam had received. “We are very fond of Wooliam and feel that he embodies the passion, colour and excitement that are synonymous with this tournament. It was very satisfying to see the crowds enjoying him as much as we do.

“We appreciate that around the globe New Zealand is associated with sheep so we thought why not embrace that but add an extra twist by making him the coolest black sheep ever, a young Kiwi with cheek and attitude.”

FIFA Marketing Director Thierry Weil said: “Wooliam is a great character who embodies New Zealand and its people. It will be very nice to see how he will become the face of the tournament, and how he will be interacting with fans of all ages during the upcoming months. A mascot is a fantastic tool to present the values and qualities of a country to the world.”

This tournament is a real homecoming for Wooliam. After travelling the globe and developing an intense passion for the beautiful game, the prodigal son decided to return to offer his services to the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015, deciding that his footballing prowess might be better suited to a role as tournament Mascot.

Embraced by the Local Organising Committee, Wooliam becomes the face of the tournament and will be busy making public appearances at schools, shopping malls and other major functions from now until the end of the tournament next June.

Gimenez: We can beat anyone on our day(FIFA.com) 21 Nov 2014

Gimenez: We can beat anyone on our day(FIFA.com) 21 Nov 2014

Christian Gimenez has Real Madrid in his sights again. Back in 2000 he was a fringe member of a combative Boca Juniors side that won the Argentinian Apertura title and the Copa Libertadores and would go on, at the end of that year, to face the mighty Spaniards in the final of the Intercontinental Cup.

That game, held in Japan, would pit Carlos Bianchi’s men against a star-studded Merengue side featuring the likes of Raul, Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo. Fourteen years on and the battle-hardened Gimenez is once again gunning for the men in white, this time at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014, where he will be directing operations in the Cruz Azul midfield, having made Mexico his home for the last ten years.

A privileged viewIn his Boca days, Gimenez shared the dressing room with stars of the calibre of Juan Roman Riquelme, Martin Palermo and Guillermo Barros Schelotto. A highly promising teenager, he broke into the first team during the 1998 Torneo Clausura, having travelled down from his home province of Chaco, in northeastern Argentina, intent on making his name in the famous Boca jersey.

Enjoying a ringside view from the bench, with the wily Bianchi by his side, Gimenez saw for himself how that fabled Boca side came into its own, sweeping all before them in the 2000 Libertadores, including arch rivals River Plate in the quarter-finals, to set up their showdown with Real Madrid.

“It was an amazing process for me,” the man they call El Chaco said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, recalling the lengthy build-up to the meeting with Los Merengues in late November 2000, a game the Argentinians memorably won 2-1 but which he missed on account of being on duty with the national youth team.

“It was all very different to today’s Club World Cup set-up,” he continued. “To reach the final now you have to play a couple of games, but in those days you went straight through. 

“Carlos Bianchi was really motivated for that match. He said we could take on absolutely anyone as long as we went out on the pitch pumped up and really focused. The team put a lot of preparation into that game, especially the mental side of things.”

A star in his own rightMuch has happened since that golden age at Boca. Gimenez left for Mexico in 2004 and enjoyed a particularly successful spell with Pachuca before Cruz Azul came calling four years ago. Without a trophy since 1997, Los Cementeros saw the Argentinian as a player who could rally the team and help bring their long trophy curse to an end.

“The club had endured a lot of setbacks, losing out on trophy after trophy,” Gimenez said. “Those of us who have been here for a while know all about the suffering that comes with playing for Cruz Azul. We even managed to lose one final in the space of just two minutes. It had been a while since we’d won a trophy and we took blow after blow.”

The Cementero idol, who has played an instrumental part in changing their fortunes, added: “We also know what success tastes like now, though. Winning the CONCACAF Champions League, with everything that means, was a major achievement for us. We had a millstone round our necks and it was a relief to finally win something.”

Eyes on the prize
That long-awaited trophy gave Cruz Azul a place at Morocco 2014, where the experienced Argentinian will be making his third appearance in the competition. Never one to shirk a challenge, Gimenez is aiming for a place in the final, a stage of the tournament that has yet to be graced by a Mexican side.

Asked as to why that is, El Chaco had this to say: “When I sit down and think about the reasons, I think it’s because Mexican teams have a long wait between winning the Champions League and then going to the Club World Cup. In our case, it’s seven months and that makes a big difference.”

Gimenez is not someone who likes to make excuses, however: “I also think, though, that we look too far ahead to the semis or the final, when in actual fact it’s the first game that’s the most important.”

Cruz Azul’s first game at Morocco 2014 will come against AFC representatives Western Sydney Wanderers. And should they overcome the Australian side, the Mexicans will come face to face with Real Madrid in the semi-finals. The man who will plot their course in Morocco is Luis Fernando Tena, who masterminded Mexico’s unexpected defeat of Brazil in the gold medal match at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

“He’s got everything you need to be a good coach,” an admiring Gimenez said of his boss. “He tries to make sure we all get along well, and he’s very open with us. He gives us the freedom to speak our minds, no matter what the situation. The older players try to lead the squad as best we can. We always try to set his mind at rest because he’s got a very good group of players here.”

Now 33, Gimenez has a fresh dream to fulfil. Having learned about the art of winning at Boca, he has no fears about what lies ahead.

“I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I know that this is a different Club World Cup, with a different club, and I feel very privileged. In football there are always lots of surprises in store. You can beat anyone on your day if you’re motivated and in the right frame of mind. That’s the only way you’re going to beat teams, even the big ones like Real Madrid.” 

Vicelich, Auckland's resident Don(FIFA.com) 15 Nov 2014

Vicelich, Auckland’s resident Don(FIFA.com) 15 Nov 2014

They call Ivan Vicelich ‘The Godfather’ of New Zealand football because of his no-nonsense approach and professionalism. This 38-year-old veteran of four FIFA Club World Cups, three FIFA Confederations Cups and the All Whites’ historic FIFA World Cup™ appearance in South Africa four years ago, Vicelich shows no signs of slowing down.

“I’m absolutely buzzing about going to Morocco again,” Vicelich told FIFA.com. “We won everything we could domestically and continentally last year and the reward for that is to go to the FIFA Club World Cup. Our pre-season preparation has been really good and to see the FIFA Club World Cup trophy here creates a wonderful excitement around the club and the tournament.”

Vicelich continues to defy the aging process, so much so he finds himself pushed into the centre of Auckland City FC’s midfield. It is a switch the skipper is thriving on. “It’s interesting and I’m enjoying it,” he explained. “It’s a position I’ve played in for the All Whites and in club football in Europe – it takes time to get used to but right now I’m enjoying it.”

The positional switch aside, Vicelich’s thoughts about the forthcoming Morocco adventure is coloured by last year’s heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Raja Casablanca where a last minute goal eliminated the plucky Kiwis. “It was disappointing to lose in that manner but I was very proud,” he said. “We worked hard on and off the ball and we did quite well. But to be positive, what that experience does for our team is show us that with hard work, organisation and discipline we can be competitive at the top level. Maybe create an upset.”

Raja Casablanca have not qualified this year, their place taken by Moghreb Athletic de Tetouan. Vicelich says though the two clubs are different, he says lessons have been learned by the Aucklanders. “We’ve accepted we can compete with whoever we get more than anything else,” Vicelich said confidently. “But Moghreb are Moroccan champions for a reason and they’ll be very very tough.

“But we have faith that if we stick to our tactical approach, organise ourselves, work hard and stay focussed, we give ourselves a chance to compete with them. If we can’t do those things, we could struggle.”

Morocco charm
Outside of the Oceania champions’ football mission, Vicelich says he is looking forward to enjoying other aspects of Morocco as a country. It has a charm, he says, that both fascinates and compels. And the love of football is a part of everyday life.

“Morocco is a beautiful place to visit,” Vicelich said. “We had opportunities to see some of the country last time and what struck us was how friendly the people were everywhere we went. What also struck us was how passionate the people are for football. That’s something we miss in our country and it was great to experience that in Morocco.”

Many critics believed the blowtorch atmosphere generated by local fans would intimidate and scare the Auckland players, but Vicelich says the opposite was true. “We’ve players that had never played in those sort of hostile and passionate stadium conditions before,” he said. “But, to be honest, it’s not a problem because it brings the level of any player up higher, it’s the big stage, where you want to be.”

And who does Vicelich believe has what it takes to succeed Bayern Munich as world champions? The former Roda JC stalwart does not mince his words. “Real Madrid are very strong at the moment and I can see them winning it. It always comes down to what happens inside 90 minutes of a match, but it’s Madrid for me.

The final word for the man known as The Godfather pertains to his role as an ambassador for the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015. For the first – and perhaps last time, at least for a while – both the FIFA Club World Cup and FIFA U-20 World Cup trophies are in New Zealand.

“The FIFA U-20 World Cup and FIFA Club World Cup are two great tournaments,” Vicelich explained. “For a club like Auckland City to qualify for the Club World Cup is fantastic and to have the U-20 World Cup trophy here is great for the country, great for football in general – these are special times for the sport in New Zealand and the two trophies being here at Kiwitea Street (Auckland’s home ground) symbolises that.”

Trophy swings through Auckland(FIFA.com) 02 Nov 2014

Trophy swings through Auckland(FIFA.com) 02 Nov 2014

Auckland City FC were the latest side set to compete at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014 to play host to the trophy all seven teams will be vying for.

Set to kick off the tournament against hosts Moghreb Athletic de Tetouan on 10 December, more than 1000 fans of Auckland took the opportunity to get a closer look at the trophy, while also got the chance to meet some of the club’s stars.

Coach Ramon Tribulietx was in attendance, alongside players Ivan Vicelich, Emiliano Tade, Takuya Iwata, Tim Payne and Tamati Williams, who posed for photos and talked to gathered media ahead of the New Zealand side’s first game of the season the next day.