On Sunday morning – if you happen to be in Western Europe – the champions of world club football will be crowned, as the final of the 2011 Club World Cup is played at the International Stadium in Yokohama between Barcelona, the current champions of Europe, and Santos of Brazil, the current champions of South America. The Club World Cup has been running since 2004, but it has yet to engage a great deal of interest in Europe. This, however, has to be seen in considerable contrast with the credibility of the tournament in other parts of the world, and in Brazil Sunday’s match is already being talked about as being one of the most important in the history of Santos, which, considering that this is a club that was Pele’s club for eighteen years, has won the Campeonato Paulista on nineteen occasions, the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A on eight occasions and the Copa Libertadores three times, can only be regarded as quite something.
European disdain for this particular tournament is not a particularly new phenomenon. We can only hint at the possible reasons for this, from the fact that it is hosted in the middle of the domestic season and on the other side of the world right through to its timing. It easy to complie a case for the current format of the tournament – which has been in operation since 2005 – being fundamentally flawed, though. The tournament is played out between the champions of each of the six FIFA confederations plus one from the host nation, meaning that familiar names from Europe and South America are in the mix with less familiar names from the rest of the world. The five clubs already out of this year’s competition are Al-Sadd Sports Club of Qatar, Monterrey of Mexico, Esperance Sportive de Tunis of Tunisia, Auckland City of New Zealand and Kasahiwa Reysol of Japan. A strong Santos team beat Kashima Reysol by three goals to one in the first semi-final in Toyota, while Barcelona beat Al-Sadd by four goals to nil in the other match, which was perhaps most notable for a serious injury to Barcelona’s David Villa, which is likely to leave the player out for the rest of this season and next summer’s European Championships.
The status of the Club World Cup has been enhanced slightly by its merger with its effective predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup, which had been running since 1960, but the reputation for brutality that the Intercontinental Cup carried during its formative years also came to mar the reputation of the game. The most infamous of the South American sides to play in this competition during those years was Estudiantes De La Plata of Argentina, who played in three successive competitions between 1968 and 1970. This team, coached by Osvaldo Zubeldía, saw its style of play christened as el antifútbol and, after its violent two-legged match against Manchester United in 1968, was described by The Times as “one of the most despicable teams ever to emerge from South America”. In the second leg of the 1970 final against Feyenoord Oscar Malbernat of Estudiantes tore the glasses from the bespectacled Feyenoord defender Joop van Daele, threw them to the ground and stomped on them. The broken glasses are now exhibited in Feyenoord’s club museum.
An example of how seriously the tournament was taken in South America, however, could be seen recently in Brazil with the thirtieth anniversary celebrations of Flamengo’s win against Liverpool in the competition in 1981. Liverpool, undoubtedly the strongest team in Europe at the time, might have travelled to Tokyo for their one-off match against the South American champions with considerable confidence, but a sublime performance by Flamengo, orchestrated by Zico, saw the Brazilian side win by three goals to nil in the middle of a period that saw the champions of South America take the tournament on seven successive occasions. It was Flamengo’s masterful performance against Liverpool, however, which really sticks in the memory, and you can see highlights of it here.
Perhaps the current incarnation of the Club World Cup could be expanded to make it more credible. After all, we can say with a degree of certainty that, even European giants – Manchester United, Barcelona and Internazionale – have won the last three tournaments, interest in the competition in its current format remains minimal in what remains, for now, the world’s most lucrative television market. FIFA’s previous attempt at expanding the tournament – to eight teams, in Brazil in 2000 – was also flawed, but it did produce some entertaining football, with, despite a goalless final between Vasco da Gama and Corinthians of Brazil which was won on penalty kicks by Corinthians, thirty-nine goals being scored in just twelve group matches. By moving the tournament to the European summer, opening it up to sixteen clubs and ensuring decent television coverage, the tournament could yet flourish. Considering the open state of attrition between the governing bodies of the game and the biggest club sides, though, such a partnership might well be a long time in coming.
Still, though, Sunday morning’s match in Yokohama between Barcelona and Santos should be well worth watching. This is, after all, a competitive match between the champions of Europe and the champions of South America, and such matches are thin on the ground. With the brutality of those Intercontinental Cup matches of the 1960s and early 1970s now but a distant memory, this is a match of intriguing contrast that should be regarded with interest by anyone that takes their club football seriously. For all of its numerous flaws, the Club World Cup remains the only way to gauge who the best club side in the world at the moment might be.
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