2019 fifa club world cup

Gabi, a serial leader from Simeone to Xavi

Doha, Qatar: Twice he came close to appearing in the competition with Atletico Madrid but, finally, at the age of 36, Gabi Fernandez is making his FIFA Club World Cup debut. The Al Sadd player smiled and shrugged his shoulders as he contemplated the achievement: “It’s the only tournament I hadn’t played in and although I perhaps shouldn’t be getting excited at my age, the fact is that I am.”

The Madrid-born midfielder is the Qatari side’s captain, continuing what has been virtually a constant theme in a career that has seen him skipper nearly every team he has played for. The only club where he has not pulled on the armband is Getafe, where he spent a year early in his career. He first wore it at Zaragoza, and then as Diego Simeone’s trusted lieutenant in the best Atleti side of all time. It is a role he is now repeating in Xavi Hernandez’s team.

“My challenge as the captain here is to show the way we live and breathe football and to compete,” he explained. “I’m trying to contribute the experience I have in leading teams. It might look easy, but it’s not. You can see that the boys want to learn and they watch what you’re doing. I just try to set an example.”

Coping with expectations

With the pressure on them as tournament hosts, Al Sadd struggled in their opening match to put away Hienghene Sport of New Caledonia, who held them to a 1-1 draw over 90 minutes. Gabi did his bit to lift his team-mates in the moments before extra time, applauding them and urging them on. It did the trick as they ran out 3-1 winners. “They’re very excited about being in this tournament,” he said of his colleagues. “We played well but didn’t take all our chances and I know that we have to be at our absolute best to compete with Monterrey.”

The Mexicans will be favourites going into the game, which Gabi sees as good for Al Sadd: “I’m convinced that being the underdogs against Monterrey can help us. The less pressure there is, the much better it is for the boys.”

The midfielder is winding his career down in Doha. He misses his family, who have stayed on in Madrid, and his Atleti: “It was tough to leave it behind after everything I experienced and how I felt there.” He is nevertheless motivated by challenges such as the Club World Cup and adapting to a type of football that is the polar opposite of the game he was used to in Madrid.

A whole new game

So how has he switched from cholismo, the brand of football espoused by Atleti coach Diego Simeone, to Xavi’s Barça style?

“That’s a good question. What’s clear is that I’d picked up some habits from playing a longer game and trying to win second balls, and that’s not what happens here. You just pick it up as quickly as you can. It’s a wonderful experience. Getting to know and then play these two different styles of football is a perfect combination, and not just for now because I’m enjoying it a lot, but for the future as well.”

While there is every chance that he will one day follow in Xavi’s footsteps when he retires, Gabi is focused on nothing else at the moment but Monterrey.

“I think they’re capable of playing well in games like this,” he said of his team-mates, “and I’m here to help them.” And if their captain pushes them on and works as hard as he always does, then what is to stop them from meeting Liverpool in the semi-finals?

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