The Fifa Club World Cup: The Tale of World Football’s Tragic Collapse
The FIFA Club World Cup is due to kick off in a few days’ time, but coverage – and interest – appears to be lacking. Calum Muldoon explores why a concept as attractive as this has failed to hit the mark with supporters.
It came as a surprise to many when they discovered that the Club World Cup was due to take place in a number of days. In fact, even in the years before the pandemic, the cup was considered forgettable. While the tournament passes under most people’s radar, its roots go back to 1957, where Brazilian side Vasco de Gama played a friendly match against reigning European champions Real Madrid, in a supposedly one-off encounter.
However, three years later, the first Intercontinental Cup was played between the Spanish giants and Peñarol from Uruguay, in which Madrid came out on top across two legs. Roughly 40 tournaments later and with numerous continents added to the fray, it was officially renamed the FIFA Club World Cup in time for the 2005 iteration of the tournament. As we prepare ourselves for the delayed 2020 contest in Qatar, we must ask ourselves whether this is even a trophy that clubs should even care about and why do FIFA bother investing time and money into this seemingly pointless trophy?
As with most editions of the tournament, the winners of the Champions League enter the fray as strong favourites, with it being no different for the current German and European champions, Bayern Munich. With a striker like Robert Lewandowski, who has scored a staggering 186 goals in 204 games for the German side, it would be hard to look past this Bayern side picking up another honour to add to their heaving trophy cabinet. Standing in their way, however, are Palmerias of Brazil, who qualified for the tournament with a 1-0 win over Santos in the Copa Libertadores final which played out last Saturday. While many anticipate that Bayern and Palmerias will almost certainly meet in the final, they have a slew of global opponents standing in their way; winners of the CONCACAF Champions League, Tigres UANL; winners of the AFC Champions League, Ulsan Hyundai; Qatari side Al-Duhail; and CAF champions Al-Ahly. The six representatives were set to be joined by Auckland City of New Zealand, but due to the strict COVID-19 restrictions in place, a trip to Qatar would have been impossible. While these fixtures offer fans the opportunity to see some unique and otherwise unrealistic clashes between the top teams from across the globe, people still cannot be bothered to waste their time with this competition – but why?
The problem with this trophy dates back to before the idea of the modern iteration was even conceived. As European football became more of a commercial success due to the success of clubs and countries on the continent, more money started to pour into the hands of football associations and club boards. With the emergence of international powerhouses like the Germans and the Dutch, the world started to turn their eyes to Europe and away from the skilful play of the Brazilian sides of the 60s and early 70s. Out with the likes of Pele and Garrincha, in with Johan Cruyff and Lothar Matthäus.
While Europe began to take over the world on an international stage, the clubs from the continent began displaying their power with attractive football and lucrative pay packets, drawing players from around the world to join their sides. Incredible players like Argentina & Napoli icon Diego Maradona and South Korea’s Cha Bum-Kun – who became a club legend at both Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayern Leverkusen – left their homelands for the hope of glory in Europe. Even in the 21st century, Europe has taken players like Neymar Jr. right from under their home clubs’ noses, meaning that the tournament itself can hardly be seen as a fair fight, as Europe has acquired the rest of the world’s top players and turned them against their own homelands.
Another reason the tournament has not been popular among supporters is that the games have become somewhat repetitive. Eleven out of fifteen of the finals have been between the European and South American champions. To top that off, there has never been a final without a European side. This shows how repetitive this trophy actually is in the eyes of fans. With the tournament involving teams from around the world, it is hard to see thousands of fans travelling across continents to see their team play up to three matches that will most likely result in an eventual loss to whichever European giant happens to find themselves in the tournament. This year, thanks to COVID-19, any hopes of supporter presence were crushed, meaning a pointless trophy will be played without any actual atmosphere. Riveting.
The timing of this season’s tournament has also been seen as an issue. Usually, the tournament would be held during the Christmas break, with clubs involved willing to field their strongest teams, with a lessened risk of the tournament impacting heavily on their domestic fixtures. However, with this season’s tournament being held in February, any risk of fatigue or injury has a much more serious impact on the remainder of each club’s domestic season. This shows that even to the teams competing, the competition is more of a nuisance than anything else.
Even with talks of opening up the competition to a further 17 teams in future iterations, the Club World Cup holds extraordinarily little importance in the game of football. On paper, the idea is up there with the best – the best team from each continent coming together to fight for the title of world champions. However, outside factors have crippled this competition, with the playing field being anything but even. Last year, Liverpool beat Flamengo in the final by a goal to nil, and I think it would be safe to say that Flamengo are not the second-best side in the world. Football, and sport in general, is not as black and white as that. According to the IFFHS, Flamengo ranks 4th in the world. However, if Flamengo were to compete more regularly against Europe’s finest, that ranking would be significantly lower.
While it is sad to see a tournament struggling to gain as much traction as the concept deserves, it clearly highlights the imbalance that money has created within the game, with the divide between Europe and the wider world (in terms of football) only getting larger with TV and sponsorship deals worth billions. While the teams we love and cherish at home benefit from this influx of wealth, UEFA may start to feel lonely on their podium as the rest of world football is still trying to catch up.