Photograph: Yasser Bakhsh/Fifa/Getty Images
A short-form Club World Cup will soon be confined to history but Pep Guardiola was at pains to stress the permanence of victory when Manchester City face Fluminense in Friday’s final. Their run to the business end in Jeddah has comprised nothing more than an easy win over Urawa Reds and back in the UK, more than 3,000 miles away, any fanfare has been muted. It has been an unusual experience but, for their manager, that is all the more reason to treat a showdown with the South American champions as an opportunity that may never resurface.
“It’s so difficult to come here, to win the Copa Libertadores, win the Champions League,” he said. “We need to give all we have; it’s something that remains for ever. I don’t know if we’ll come back to play a final for the Club World Cup.”
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City know they will have a shot at the 32-team jamboree scheduled for the summer of 2025 but Guardiola is evidently eager for them to live in the moment and allowed his romantic side to run free when sifting through the merits of their opponents. This was clearly the final he had wanted: it is hard to contest the smothering supremacy of European club football but, once upon a time, competing against Brazilian giants would have assumed shades of glamour, mystique and sheer danger.
Perhaps that will all flow back at King Abdullah Sports City. “They play a typical Brazilian style from the 70s, 80s, early 90s,” Guardiola enthused of an attack-minded Fluminense, who entertained greatly in beating Al-Ahly 2-0 on Monday but looked as porous as they did fluent. “They play with the ball, a lot of short passes, the combinations are really good. We will have to be aware of how much we run behind the ball and accept we play a team who play in a way we’ve never faced before.
“I love how [Brazilian teams] associate between each other and respect a lot of time with the ball. I’ve huge respect for the essence of Brazil: slow and quick, how they handle both rhythms. I saw it for many years.”
The challenge may be exotic, appealingly so given the homogeneity that dogs so much of modern football, but there will still be notes of familiarity. A 35-year-old Marcelo, a four-time winner of this tournament with Real Madrid and arguably among the best left-backs of all time, brings class and composure from the highest level. The former Internazionale, Juventus and Fiorentina player Felipe Melo, likely to start at centre-back, is still going strong at 40. Fluminense’s goalkeeper, Fábio, is 43 and joined Vasco da Gama shortly after their win over Manchester United in the 2000 edition of this event.
In total, nine of this season’s squad are 33 or over and there is a temptation to assume seasoned legs will come undone by City’s propensity to let adversaries chase them. This, after all, will be the 73rd game of their campaign. Suggesting that, though, did not go down well and Fluminense were put out by a British newspaper article that likened their team to a Soccer Aid lineup of veterans. “These things are done to draw the audience’s attention and get a reaction on social media,” Melo said. “But I don’t think it was a very smart opinion. There are … players who can play after a certain age and still play better than other players. I still play because I love the game, because I am disciplined and because I work hard. Other people can say stupid things.”
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His manager, Fernando Diniz, who doubles as the interim head coach of Brazil, claimed such remarks would put extra fire in Fluminense’s bellies. “It would be great if we won, but what we will show is that we are not a Soccer Aid team,” he said. “We have to be respected.”
On Wednesday night City fraternised with a beloved veteran of their own. Riyad Mahrez, who joined the local club Al-Ahli in pre-season after five years at the Etihad, dined with his former colleagues and the joy at reuniting was mutual. Guardiola would probably not mind having Mahrez at his disposal given none of Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland and Jérémy Doku are ready to return; nonetheless a strikerless team that recalled the pre-Haaland days of floating, rotating forwards pulled Urawa around effectively enough and there should be space on offer from Fluminense.
This will be the fourth Club World Cup final between foes from these two superpowers: in the most recent two, in 2019 and 2021, Liverpool and Chelsea prevailed narrowly against Flamengo and Palmeiras. Both games went to extra time and were knife-edge contests; Guardiola again upped the stakes in an attempt to ensure City have the upper hand in theirs. “Emotions are there, it’s how you handle it,” he said. “We are a day before playing a competition, a final, to be here once in a lifetime.”