Football has dreamt up some odd competitions over the years. Take the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a European club tournament that was initially played only by cities that hosted international trade fairs.
Or the Floodlit Cup, a knockout contest that took place – you guessed it – exclusively under the floodlights.
You wouldn’t think that the FIFA Club World Cup belonged with this motley crew. The tournament seems like a good idea: assemble the continental champions of Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, North America and Oceania and find out who is the best in the world.
In reality it is at risk of joining the Floodlit Cup in the dustbin of history. The main problem is predictability: the financial clout of European football makes it all but inevitable that their representative will win the competition.
THE FORGOTTEN WORLD CUP
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that this year’s tournament began with a play-off between Al-Jazira of the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand side Auckland City on 6 December. The Emirati side snuck it by a goal to nil to reach a quarter-final with Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds, where they once again progressed with a 1-0 win.
The other quarter-final featured Pachuca of Mexico and Moroccan outfit Wydad Casablanca, the Mexican side emerging victorious courtesy of an extra-time winner.
At the semi-final stage the champions of Europe (Real Madrid) and South America (Gremio) dispatched Al-Jazira and Pachuca respectively to set up the final everybody expected.
In truth, the FIFA Club World Cup only attracts significant interest – when it attracts any at all – at the semi-final stage. Even this is largely a formality where it is decided which continent will get to play (and most likely lose to) the champions of Europe - although Al-Jazira gave Real a mini scare on Wednesday.
Usually - as is the case this year - it’s South America, though African sides were able to take a swing in 2010 and 2013. In the former TP Mazembe lost 3-0 to Inter Milan, while Bayern Munich beat Raja Casablanca 2-0 in the latter.
In Europe there is only mild interest in the competition.
It certainly matters in South America, where the chance to conquer a posturing European giant remains potent inspiration, but that is not enough for the game’s governing body and its premier club competition. FIFA wants the tournament to matter to everyone – particularly the lucrative European and Asian markets. Above all, the Club World Cup needs to work financially.
GIANNI THE REFORMER
The solution being mooted is characteristic of Gianni Infantino’s approach to running FIFA: whether something works or not, this president believes the answer is to make it bigger. Having overseen the World Cup’s proposed expansion to 48 teams, Infantino wants to do something similar with its unloved club equivalent.
But whereas the World Cup is merely being inflated, the Club World Cup is being super-sized. This is even reflected in the new name being proposed.
In recent weeks Infantino has discussed plans for a ‘Super Club World Cup’ that will comprise 24 teams and begin in summer 2021. They will be split into eight groups of three, with the group winners progressing to a knockout stage.
It is likely that another unloved tournament, the Confederations Cup, will be scrapped to make room on the international calendar. It would likely take place every four years; the current Club World Cup could be dropped, though that has not been confirmed and FIFA might still want an extra revenue stream.
HOW THE REVISED 'SUPER' CLUB WORLD CUP WOULD LOOK THIS YEAR
The plans remain tentative, but it has been suggested by FIFA that the tournament will feature 12 European teams joined by five from South America, two each from Asia, Africa and North America, and one from Oceania.
We know a little in the way of qualification criteria, too. Europe will be represented by the past four Champions League winners and finalists, with the remainder being filled out by the top-ranked teams in UEFA’s coefficient.
CONMEBOL would send the past four Copa Libertadores champions and the best-ranked team or teams not among them. For Africa, Asia and North America, there are no concrete details on qualification criteria, but if the Super Club World Cup takes place every four years we can only assume that a play-off would decide the representatives. Oceania, with just one spot, would also require play-offs.
NEW APPROACH, FRESH PROBLEMS
There are positive aspects to this idea. There’s no denying that the Super Club World Cup would have mass appeal; games between Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and Bayern Munich are box office events. It would be appointment viewing that guaranteed interest from the booming U.S. and Asian markets.
Were FIFA to scrap the annual Club World Cup and move the competition solely to a four-year cycle, they’d be killing off an unloved tournament and adding something more robust; dropping the Confederations Cup to make room for it would also be a positive move.
Running the competition in the European summer would boost its appeal, too. Part of the problem with the current format is that it takes place at a busy point in Europe’s domestic calendar, when clubs and fans are more concerned with league results. A Club World Cup in December is a distraction; move it to June or July and it could attract greater attention.
But such heavy focus on Europe is exactly the kind of problem the competition would be blighted by. The most obvious issue would be the inevitable European dominance. Unless they were grouped together, it is difficult to see any clubs from Asia or Oceania progressing to the knockout phase. Africa and North America would have only a slightly better chance. Even the champions of South America could struggle in a group with two European sides.
It’s likely that the semi-final line-up would be formed entirely of European teams. That already exists: it’s called the Champions League.
In fact, the revised format would make it more difficult for non-European sides. Currently, a tactically astute South American outfit can hope to surprise the European champions with a stellar performance in the final. It’s one match of 90 minutes and upsets are possible.
But when they need to beat European sides in the group, quarters, semis and then the final, we move into the realms of fantasy. Even the best that South America has to offer will not beat Porto, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and then Barcelona in successive games.
If it were held today, the 12 European teams would include five that have never won the Champions League or its forerunner, the European Cup. This would make the competition feel like a FIFA money-grab, an opportunity to sell TV rights for games between super-clubs, with football a secondary consideration.
The fact is, we already see games between Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, and Bayern Munich in the latter stages of the Champions League. Will there really be significant interest if we see them again in the Super Club World Cup?
A WORLD CUP CLONE
FIFA would love to create a club competition that is on a par with the World Cup. It is fair to assume that, as the governing body of world football, they are not entirely pleased with the dominance of the UEFA Champions League. By creating a Super Club World Cup they will hope to establish their own event as the biggest show in town.
But that is simply not going to happen. The World Cup has unique history and prestige. There is no doubt that technical standards are much better at the club level, but international football plays on different emotions.
And while Europe’s financial dominance gives the continents’ clubs a huge advantage, it actually strengthens their opponents in the international game. When the best players from South America, Africa and Asia all move to Europe, it leaves their domestic sides much weaker. But it also improves their national sides, with their players linking up with the best from all over the globe and pushing themselves to a higher level.
You could even argue that it weakens some European nations as their players are replaced by overseas talent – though that is another debate entirely.
A QUESTION NO ONE ASKED
FIFA will be hoping to create a tournament that combines prestige and profit. And, given the teams that would compete, they’d probably be successful.
But from a footballing perspective, would a Super Club World Cup improve upon the current format? A South American or African side has more chance of reaching the final – and therefore more chance of winning – in the plain old Club World Cup. The 24-team competition would be stacked in favour of the European sides.
The disparity of wealth between European football and the rest of the game has led to something akin to boxing’s weight divisions. European clubs are like heavyweights: they’re bigger, pack a more powerful punch, but are also susceptible to collapse under their own bulk. South American teams are smaller and in a sense weaker, though they can also be intelligent and agile.
If you put them in the ring together the heavyweight will usually win. Yet this is only a simplistic measure of which is better; the pound-for-pound comparison is very different. It’s for this same reason that the Club World Cup, and particularly the Super Club World Cup, feel unnecessary. European sides are so much bigger and stronger that it’s not a fair fight.
Does the Club World Cup tell us who the best side on the planet is, or merely confirm Europe’s financial dominance? Ultimately, the Super Club World Cup seems to be looking for an answer to a question that no one is asking.