The Club World Cup Fails Engage… Again
Chelsea’s bid to become the world champions of club football ended yesterday morning in Yokohama with an insipid defeat at the hands of the South American champions Corinthians of Sao Paolo. This was, perhaps, not too great a surprise. For all the talk of superlatives that seems to pepper football in the twenty-first century, FIFA’s World Club Cup has never properly caught the imagination of the public, and for a club that is starting to see both Manchester United and Manchester City disappear into the distance in this year’s Premier League title race, the overwhelming feeling about the European champions’ appearance in this competition is that this was all little more than a distraction ahead of the busy Christmas schedule and the January transfer window. Set against all of this, to win a competition that likely only be greeted with hoots of derision seems like a burden which is unlikely to weigh too heavily on the mind of new manager Rafael Benitez. It seems unlikely that his reputation will stand or fall on last weekend’s result.
The FIFA World Club Cup is a competition that remains viewed with suspicion in Europe, at least. Falling in the middle of most domestic calendars, its format pitches the champions of each of the FIFA confederations (as well as one representative from the host nation, Japan) against each other in a staggered knockout competition. It is a reflection, perhaps, on the necessary politicking that is required when FIFA start getting involved in club football that the format is the way that it is. To minimise disruption to the biggest clubs involved, the champions of South America and Europe don’t enter until the semi-finals stage, and Chelsea’s introduction this year came with a comfortable semi-final win against the Mexican club Monterray. For those expecting Chelsea to move on and become crowned as the champions of the world, however, this result would turn out to be a false dawn. The final, played on Saturday morning, turned out to be a drab affair, hardly the kind of advertisement for the tournament that its biggest cheerleader, Sepp Blatter, would have been hoping for. It was a match that was effectively put out of its misery by the late winning goal that took the trophy back to Sao Paolo.
The attitude of Corinthians and their support was in marked contrast to the lethargy displayed by Chelsea towards it, though. The club took more than 20,000 supporters to Japan for the tournament. In an era during which the cultural hegemony of the biggest European domestic leagues and UEFA’s cash monster the Champions League attract television audiences on a truly global scale, South American club football is frequently treated as an afterthought by many supporters, and the Club World Cup is an opportunity to take back a little pride, for club, country and continent. Corinthians entered the tournament with the intention of winning it, and deserved to do so. And on top of all other matters, there is the fact that this is the only opportunity that South American clubs get – apart from those mildly irritating corporate sponsored pre-season tournaments that no-one seems to take seriously – get to pit their wits in a competitive environment against those much-hyped clubs from Europe. The European clubs may treat it as something of an afterthought, but the silverware keeps on returning to South America and this, they could argue with justification, is the only way in which the global cultural dominance of European football club football can be challenged.
None of this, however, is to say that the current format of the Club World Cup isn’t fundamentally flawed. The small number of clubs involved coupled with the fact that Europe and South America are represented by no more clubs than Oceania or Central and North America sees to that. The question for the governing body should, perhaps, be one of how they can engage more of the world’s top club sides to engage with the concept of a truly global club competition, and in twenty-first century money talks louder than anything else. It would be unsurprising to see FIFA make plans for an expansion of this competition, but previous attempts at tweaking it – most notably in Brazil in 2000 – have hardly succeeded in raising interest in it, and ultimately it seems likely that until a format can be devised that sets the endorphins flowing amongst both the owners and supporters of the biggest club sides in Europe, the Club World Cup will continue to be viewed with a mixture of dismissiveness and contempt on this continent, at least.
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