A World Cup only in name

Though FIFA has managed to secure a permanent slot for the Club World Cup in its calendar, the marquee club competition is yet to capture the imagination of the fans, writes Priyansh.

“People in England laughed at the European Cup 44 years ago and now it’s the biggest thing there is. Who is to say, in another 10 or 15 years that this (the Club World Cup) is not going to become the biggest competition you could play in. I think this event could become something which competes with the World Cup from a club point of view.”

With the benefit of hindsight, almost 13 years later, the football world would be tempted to term Gary Neville’s remarks on the eve of the inaugural FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil as ‘ill-judged’. And yet, it’s tough to ignore that the former Manchester United defender’s ideas then were a fair reflection of the prevailing optimism around the tournament.

In January 2000, five continental champions and the winner of the previous Intercontinental Cup, Real Madrid, descended on the largest South American country to participate in a 10-day football festival featuring eight teams in all. Brazil’s Vasco da Gama, the Copa Libertadores winner, and Corinthians, representing the host by virtue of being the domestic league champion, completed the list.

The Club Championship featured a round-robin format with two groups of four and the respective group winners qualified for the final. However, unable to adjust to the warm South American climate and the slow pitches, Real Madrid and Manchester United finished fourth and fifth respectively. The final was played between the two Brazilian sides, with Corinthians winning it in a penalty shootout.

Despite the early exit of the European giants, the tournament garnered much attention, but FIFA faced a massive challenge in its attempt to find a regular place for the competition in the football calendar. Especially in England, Manchester United drew strong criticism for its decision to go to Brazil at the expense of participating in that season’s FA Cup.

Unfortunately, the challenge did not come to pass for the next four years as the world football governing body’s marketing partner, ISL, collapsed in 2001. Consequently, the European and South American champions resumed their battle for the Intercontinental Cup in Japan, which was organised by UEFA and the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL), and had become a single match affair from 1980.

FIFA, though, was desperate to hold an international club tournament and reinvented the Club World Championship as the Club World Cup in 2005. Ever since, it has been a seven-team knockout tournament, held six times in Japan and twice in Abu Dhabi until 2012, which featured all the six continental champions along with the host’s representative, the domestic league winner. The competition will move to Morocco for the next two years, but its much-contested format will remain the same.

Presently, the European and South American champions come into the tournament only at the semi-final stage and finish their trip within a week. Since this competition is held in the middle of the European football season, clubs and associations argue that a longer participation would be incompatible with their domestic commitments.

Hence, the Club World Cup largely subsides into a sideshow. For the major European teams, until recently, the tournament was no different to a pre-season friendly tour of the Far East. The fans remain largely indifferent too, and it’s hard to blame them.

Global sporting events, invariably, are expected to be spectacles. The Football World Cup, Olympics and Grand Slams are more than just a sporting tournament. Like a vacuum cleaner, they suck you inside them, store you for a while and then suddenly throw you away at the end. You’re then just left with a void in your life, created by that grandest of grand events, and you try to fill it by doing things that used to give you joy earlier. But it hardly helps, at least for the next few days.

Herein lies the problem with the Club World Cup. It fails as a spectacle. Due to its short duration, the tournament is unable to grow on a football fan. It’s a dalliance and not love. While the format in the World Club Championship allowed each team to play at least three matches, the present system ensures that two wins will be good enough for a European or a South American team to become champion.

However, despite its low popularity in Europe, the Club World Cup continues to be an attraction for the other participants in the tournament, especially South American clubs. This year’s final saw 30,000 Brazilian fans travel to Yokohama to witness Corinthians’ 1-0 victory over 10-man Chelsea. Shorn of limelight, clubs outside Europe view this competition as the perfect platform to place themselves on the global football map.

In fairness, over the past two to three seasons, players and managers from European sides have also talked of the importance of this marquee club event. The reaction of some Chelsea players like David Luiz and Ramires, who cried after the match following the defeat, serves as an important reminder to the growing stature of the tournament. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the aforementioned duo comes from Brazil and the Club World Cup does not figure at the top of most European footballers’ priorities.

Though FIFA has managed to secure a permanent slot for this marquee club event in its calendar, the competition is yet to capture the imagination of the fans. Until the world body tweaks the present format, the dust will remain out of the vacuum cleaner’s reach.