When he starred for Dutch masters Ajax in the early 1970s, Johann Cruyff had a phrase — “the Italian clubs can’t beat you, but you can lose to them.”
This apparent nonsense reveals a great truth about football, a low scoring game where part of the charm is that the best team does not always prevail. Cruyff’s phase applies perfectly to the Club World Cup, which reaches a climax on Saturday with a final between Real Madrid of Spain and Gremio of Brazil.
The current format of the competition was adopted in 2005. The Europeans have dominated, but there have been three occasions where the South Americans have triumphed 00 a hat trick of Brazilian wins, for Sao Paulo (over Liverpool) in 2005, Internacional (over Barcelona in 2006) and Corinthians (over Chelsea) in 2012.
In all three cases the winner fought from a bunker, acknowledging the superiority of the opponent, covering up and looking to take advantage of a rare break. All three were 1-0 victories. In the current age, it is hard to see what else the South American champion can do. In today’s globalised market the best South Americans are representing the European champions. It is not an even fight and the South American team would surely be unwise to go toe to toe and trade punches. Perhaps the closest to this scenario was in 2007, when Boca Juniors of Argentina tried to trade punches with Milan of Italy and went down more heavily than the 4-2 scoreline might suggest.
And it is hard to see Gremio doing anything different against Real on Saturday. Gremio have spent the year playing eye pleasing, possession based football. But injury robs them of key midfielder Arthur, a prototype Andres Iniesta fundamental to their passing game. And even against CONCACAF champions Pachuca in the semifinal, Gremio spent much of the game watching their opponent exchange passes. It is reasonable to expect that on Saturday Real Madrid will see more of the ball than the Brazilians.
There are plenty of reasons for Gremio to take extra defensive precautions. Real are full of attacking potency. Cristiano Ronaldo and Karin Benzema, for example, give them a massive aerial threat. Gremio keeper Marcelo Grohe is a magnificent reaction shot-stopper, one of the heroes of their year. But he is weak on crosses. Centre-backs Pedro Geromel and Walter Kannemann are therefore forced back into their own area to help him out against the high ball. Gremio will surely be obliged to sit deep for long periods of the game.
But this does not mean that they have no chance of victory. If Grohe can perform more reflex heroics, if Geromel can show the imperious form he displayed against Pachuca, if the combative Argentine Kannemann can channel his aggression sufficiently to stay on the field for 90 minutes, then Gremio can hope to hold Real and hit them on the break. They have the tools to do it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the final is the way in which Gremio coach Renato Portaluppi might change the balance of his side in accordance with the circumstances. He won the Libertadores against Lanus of Argentina, the self-styled “biggest neighbourhood club in the world.” He overcame Pachuca to reach the Club World Cup final. But now the degree of difficulty rises. Can Renato adapt?
He has been one of the figures of South American football this year. A top player — Gremio’s attacking star when they won the Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup back in 1983 — he rates himself as better than Cristiano Ronaldo. It fits an image he has cultivated as a swaggering beach bum, a man who does not need to study because he was born knowing it all. But he has shown that there is much more to him. Renato’s stewardship of Gremio has been admirably mature; he has had the humility to work inside the guidelines set by his predecessor Roger Machado. And his man-management has been so good that he has been responsible for recuperating several careers, for drawing excellent performances out of players who had widely been written off.
The news from the camp on Thursday was that Gremio trained with Jael in place of Lucas Barrios in the centre-forward position. But there must surely be a temptation to do away with a centre-forward altogether for this game. If Real will have more of the ball, and Gremio will sit deep, then pace on the counterattack is surely their best weapon. Real showed their vulnerability to this approach against Al Jazira in the semifinal, and all season they have struggled against teams who drop deep and deny them space.
Gremio, on the other hand, should have plenty of space in which to launch their sporadic attacks. It may well make sense to start with Everton, who came off the bench to score the only goal against Pachuca, on one flank and the equally rapid Fernandinho on the other, with the intelligent and dangerous Luan floating behind them as a false nine.
Will Renato conclude that this approach offers him the best chance of victory? Because he has a team that would seem incapable of outplaying Real Madrid, but that may yet to able to outscore them.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.