The phrase “building a dream” means more than most to Team Wellington skipper Justin Gulley.
Since he dropped out of the professional game with the A-League’s Wellington Phoenix in 2016, the left-back has been pursuing a builder’s apprenticeship by day and OFC Champions League success with TeeDubs by night.
This hard graft paid off, in spades, this year. Not only were a first trio of New Zealand international caps earned, but the breaking of Auckland City’s stranglehold, since 2011, on Oceania means Gulley will have the honour of leading his side out against Al Ain on Wednesday night at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium when the Club World Cup kicks off.
Sport360 caught up with the 25-year-old to discuss his work/life balance, dreams of meeting holders Real Madrid in the UAE and much more.
You’ve had a breakthrough year, with winning the OFC Champions League and making your debut for New Zealand. What would success at the Club World Cup mean to you?
It would be an awesome way to cap off the year. It has been quite a big year for me, personally.
Just to do well here will mean a lot. I really, really want to make my mark here – it is the same for the rest of the boys.
Getting some good success here will be massive for us, massive for the club and it will be good for New Zealand football back home.
There are a lot of people wanting us to do well.
You’ve been in the professional game before. Is the Club World Cup a showcase to get back with an A-League contract?
It definitely is. There will be a lot of eyes watching and if you perform well on the international stage, who knows what can happen?
I am sure doors can open up anywhere. I am just going to put my best foot forward.
It is about having that belief, and showing what we can do. I know we are good enough to do it.
We need to be brave and then who knows what can happen?
GALLERY | 📸 First look at Hazza Bin Sayed Stadium today ahead of our first game tomorrow.— Team Wellington ⚫️🔶 (@TeamWelly) December 11, 2018
View the full album here 👉 https://t.co/GngXlbd89x#FullThrottle #Weready #OurMoment pic.twitter.com/WV8CdiY4LW
What is your day-to-day life like, as an amateur?
At the moment, I am working on a building site and doing my apprenticeship to become a qualified builder.
It is a long, heavy day of work and then, sometimes, it can be quite taxing on the body. Then it is training at night.
But when you have opportunities like this, then you just find a way to push through it.
I’m working five days a week, for 40 hours. Big weeks, but it keeps me fit at the same time.
For the last seven years, Auckland City were in this competition. Can you give us an insight into the rivalry between the teams?
It is a really good rivalry that we have with Auckland. They’ve been pretty dominant in the seven years running.
We knew we had to work extra hard and we really wanted to topple them this year. Beating them in the semi-finals was a huge confidence boost.
We almost felt like we could do anything.
It is still a very healthy rivalry. We look forward to playing them and I think they look forward to playing us, too.
We are constantly putting each other under pressure.
Have you guys allowed yourselves to look ahead to possibly playing the likes of Real Madrid?
You cannot help but think about those things. The chances of playing Real Madrid or River Plate… those opportunities play on your mind.
We are not looking too far ahead of ourselves. We know we have a huge test against Al Ain.
You’ll probably be up against Hussein El Shahat, who is an Egypt international. Al Ain also have Sweden target man Marcus Berg, plus many other internationals. What is it like knowing you’ll be testing yourself against these guys?
It is a great opportunity, really. Coming up against internationals and top-class players is a great opportunity for the boys and myself to prove ourselves and see what we are made of.
It is a good showcase for what we can do. We are all really looking forward to it.
You’ve been in the UAE for about a week. What have you made of it?
We were in Abu Dhabi, for a bit. We had a good little spot there.
We didn’t get too much sightseeing done. When we arrived, we went to Dubai Mall.
It was pretty impressive, really. The scale of the place is just crazy and a lot of us hadn’t seen a place that big.
Looking around Dubai, it was a pretty impressive place. Now in Al Ain, we are up in the mountains and get to look over everything.
What are the key things against Al Ain?
The key for us is to have belief and hold no fear. I really think we are good enough to take them, as long as we believe.
We cannot go into our shells and panic. There will be tough times, as long as we stick together, that is huge for me.
The 2018 CWC will bring together six continental champions – holders Real Madrid, Asia’s Kashima Antlers, Africa’s Esperance de Tunis, Central America’s Chivas Guadalajara, Oceania’s Team Wellington plus South America’s River Plate – and host team Al Ain. Visit www.fifa.com/clubworldcup for more information and www.fifacwc.ae/tickets to buy tickets.
River Plate won the Copa Libertadores by coming from behind to beat rivals Boca Juniors 3-1 in extra-time of their controversially rearranged final in Madrid.
Juan Quintero all but settled a keenly fought encounter at the Bernabeu with a stunning strike after 109 minutes before Gonzalo Martinez broke away for a third, securing a 5-3 aggregate success, in the dying moments.
Boca had taken a first-half lead through Dario Benedetto but River hit back through Lucas Pratto and Boca’s hopes were badly hit after Wilmar Barrios was sent off early in extra-time.
River ended the match victorious but the saga of this final, postponed and moved to Spain after Boca’s team bus was attacked by rival fans in Buenos Aires, may not be over.
Boca failed to get the fixture suspended at the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Saturday but their attempts to have River disqualified could continue.
Boca were much the better side early on and almost went ahead when River’s Jonathan Maidana sliced a clearance over his own bar. The ball rebounded off players from the resulting corner and fell to Pablo Perez shot at Franco Armani.
Boca’s next opportunity also came from a set-piece after Benedetto drilled a shot into the wall. The ball broke for Perez on the right but his goalbound effort was deflected over.
River thought they should have had a penalty for a push on Milton Casco but Boca threatened again through Lisandro Magallan and Carlos Izquierdoz. Armani also had to be alert to punch away a dangerous Sebastian Villa cross in front of Benedetto.
Gonzalo Martinez shot well over for River, who then squandered another opening before Boca broke to take the lead. In a breathless passage of play, Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada gave away the ball but River failed to take advantage and Cristian Pavon released Benedetto with a brilliant throughball.
Benedetto skipped over a challenge from Maidana and showed great composure to beat Armani.
River were much more positive in the second half.
They pieced together a good move soon after the restart as Pratto teed up Ignacio Fernandez but he shot narrowly wide.
River continued to dominate but without creating clear-cut chances until Pratto swept home the equaliser after a fine move in the 68th minute.
The game then became scrappy with frequent stoppages and drifted into extra-time, which got off to an explosive start when Barrios earned a second yellow card for a poor challenge on Exequiel Palacios.
River proceeded to dominate possession and their breakthrough came early in the second extra period. They pieced together a series of passes and Quintero struck with a ferocious shot from the edge of the area that went in off the underside of the bar.
Boca responded by sending on Carlos Tevez, the former Manchester United and City forward.
River had a scare almost immediately as Camilo Mayada went close to heading into his own net but Armani reacted quickly.
Leonardo Jara hit a post for Boca in a frantic finish but they were punished for throwing men forward as River broke to score a third through Martinez in stoppage time.
Atlanta United stand on the brink of Major League Soccer glory just 21 months after their first ever competitive match – little wonder president Darren Eales is pinching himself.
United host the Portland Timbers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium this weekend, when more than 70,000 fans will roar on Tata Martino’s side in the MLS Cup final.
Atlanta have taken MLS by storm since joining as an expansion team in 2017 and are looking to end their second season in existence with a first trophy.
Former Tottenham executive director Eales has played an integral part in shaping United since arriving four years ago, becoming “employee number one” at a club without a fan let alone a player
Now, the Englishman watches arguably the most attractive football in MLS and sees United average more than 54,000 fans, putting them 14th in the world ahead of the likes of Manchester City and Paris St Germain.
“It’s just over four years since I came to Atlanta,” Eales told Press Association Sport on the eve of the MLS Cup final.
“I sat in the office at the Atlanta Falcons’ training ground and literally had a desk and nothing in there except a name plate that said you are president.
“I sat down there and started to draw up the plans on how we try and make Atlanta United one of the top teams in MLS – and to be here only two years into our playing existence actually hosting an MLS Cup final in front of over 70,000 is something really special.
“I am proud of what we’ve achieved.
“Win or lose, it’s going to have been a great year, but obviously I would just love to win it just for the fans of Atlanta because they’ve been so supportive right from the very start and it would be great if we could get them a win.”
Backed by billionaire Arthur Blank, who also owns the Atlanta Falcons, swashbuckling United have captured the imagination of an international, sport-hungry city that has not celebrated a trophy since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.
United are bookmakers’ favourites against the Timbers thanks to home advantage and a superb campaign, which saw them overcome Supporters’ Shield champions New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference showdown as their focus on young talent paid dividends.
Eales wanted to “try and prove that you can build the stars rather than bring in a star that has name recognition” at Atlanta – a tactic that has clearly worked, with free-scoring Josef Martinez this week named MLS’ Most Valuable Player.
Miguel Almiron finished runner-up in that award and is attracting interest from the Premier League, with Newcastle strongly linked.
“He’s a top talent and we’re a team that is trying to win trophies, with an owner who is a billionaire, who cares about winning,” Eales said.
“We’re in a situation where it has to be the right offer for the club, but we’re not going to accept any of the chump change figures I’ve seen in the press.
“If there’s a proper offer, if it’s the right offer for Atlanta United and the player and the league, then we’ll consider it.
“But we’re not under any sort of pressure to transfer the player so in that sense it has to be a realistic offer that measures the true value of Miguel Almiron, who is just a wonderful player.”
It has been widely-speculated that the MLS Cup final could prove Almiron’s last match for Atlanta, just as it might be for MLS Coach of the Year Martino with the Mexico national-team post seemingly in the pipeline.
Eales said the former Barcelona boss will “always be a legend of the club” – yet losing such a key figure does not scare the United president given how far they have come.
“The exciting thing for us is we have got a great base and platform to build the club,” he added.
“Whatever happens, win or lose, it’s just the start. We want to establish a dynasty and be one of the top teams in Major League soccer.
“We get to play (CONCACAF) Champions League next and we’re just going to look to get better and better each year.”