In his role as Auckland City’s goalkeeper, Jacob Spoonley is likely to be a busy man during the New Zealanders’ FIFA Club World Cup campaign next month. Not that a heavy workload will hold any fears. After all, the 24-year-old is a man well used to juggling more than one ball in the air.
Spoonley might be about to keep goal in a star-studded showpiece, but football is only his part-time occupation, and one he combines with a time-consuming university course. As such, and while Auckland await the outcome of a thrilling J.League title race to find out who they will face in the tournament opener on 8 December, their keeper admits he has barely had a minute to consider the possibilities.
As he told FIFA.com: “I’ve watched some Japanese football on the internet but my main focus has been on my studies. I’m finishing a law degree, and it can be difficult to get the balance right. There is definitely conflict between my football and academic life right now – my coach says one thing and my lecturers say I should be doing another!”
Spoonley was a member of the Auckland side that excelled at the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi two years ago, claiming shock wins over both Al Ahli and TP Mazembe Englebert. However, while the Kiwis are once again dreaming of springing a surprise, Spoonley has said that the watching world can expect a radically different approach under Spanish coach Ramon Tribulietx.
“Our team is very different now,” he explained. “We play a lot more football. We’ve tried to emulate what other teams are doing in Europe by keeping possession, rather than playing deeper as we did in UAE. The 2009 squad played in a very orthodox manner. Now Ramon has established his own vision of how we want to play, and that’s meant we use space well and keep the ball better.”
With pedigree that includes appearances at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, a senior international cap for New Zealand and three appearances for the U-23s at the Beijing Olympics, Spoonley is not short of top-level experience. He was even picked to represent an Oceania XI against David Beckham’s LA Galaxy in 2008. Yet although other amateur keepers might brag about such achievements, there appears little chance of Auckland City’s No1 getting carried away.
There is definitely conflict between my football and academic life right now – my coach says one thing and my lecturers say I should be doing another!
“At this club, everybody is grounded,” he said. “The banter that flies around the squad is a real leveller and keeps our feet firmly on the ground. I have a family and a girlfriend who also don’t take me too seriously, so that helps keep me focused!"
Unflinching concentration will be vitally important if Auckland are to upset the odds again next month when they take on the winners of a J.League title race that is going right down the wire. And Spoonley is in no doubt that the defence - led by skipper Ivan Vicelich and Spanish stopper, Angel Berlanga - hold the key to frustrating the local favourites.
“Defensively, we have to be well marshalled,” he said. “Japanese teams are technically very good but also very quick. If we can establish and express ourselves from the outset, we might cause a big surprise.
“We know it will be very difficult but we have exciting players from all over the world: New Zealand tenacity, European strength and some Spanish flair. It’s not a mission impossible - improbable is a better word. But whatever happens, we are ready to give our best for the club and our region.”
Auckland’s reward, should they see off Japan’s representatives, will be a quarter-final against Mexico’s CF Monterrey. Starting as underdogs in such fixtures is a given for the part-timers, but with daily pre-tournament training sessions, not to mention several full internationals and ex-professionals in their ranks, Spoonley believes they are well equipped for the challenge.
“You can’t always emulate the same cut-throat environment of a full-time club, but training everyday can only help,” he said. “Players like Ivan Vicelich and Manel Exposito have played professionally before and that’s important. The small things will count – making sure our first touch on the ball is a good one will be vital. The first game will be all or nothing, so how fast we adjust to the professional level will determine everything.”
Although clearing that first hurdle may not be beyond Auckland City, dreams of challenging for the trophy are, as Spoonley readily admits, the stuff of fantasy. So, with that in mind, who is his tip for the world title?
“If Manchester United can’t live with Barcelona, how can anyone else?” he responded without hesitation. “I think it has to be Barça. They have more attacking weapons all over the pitch and a very strong defence. They are the best team in the world.”