Club World Cup format is currently failing, as European giants like Real Madrid dominate and South Americans struggle | The SunFebruary 13, 2023
A little more than 23 years have passed since Manchester United flew to Brazil to take part in FIFA’s first attempt to organise a Club World Cup.
As that competition came to an end, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter gave his verdict; if the tournament was to thrive, he said, then it would have to take up more time, and the Europeans would have to show more solidarity.
The reverse has happened. The Club World Cup was relaunched in 2005 on a basis meant to inconvenience the Europeans as little as possible.
That inaugural version back in 2000 had eight teams in two groups of four, with the group winners meeting in a final. The teams, then, were playing at least three games, with the finalists playing four.
The versions that have come afterwards are pure knock out, with the Europeans and South Americans coming in at the semi final stage, and only playing two games.
The objective seems to be to get the thing over and done with as soon as possible so that the Europeans can get back to the football that they care about.
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It is easy to understand the thinking behind this. Year after year the Club World Cup shows the distance between Europe and the rest of the planet.
There have been three South American victories; Brazilian sides won in 2005, 2006 and 2012 – all 1-0 wins achieved with a combination of deep defence and the occasional counter attack.
It would seem to be the only way they can win – and they have not come close in the last decade.
This is extremely painful for South America. If Europe treats the Club World Cup with disinterest, the same is emphatically not true on the other side of the Atlantic.
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For a South American team it is the most important date in the club calendar, the dream that is nurtured for months.
Fans make extraordinary sacrifices to follow their team to the competition, and those who can’t go will often make a point of seeing them off at the airport.
There is a strong memory of the time – until the turn of the century – when there was no gap between the best of Europe and South America’s finest.
Every year there is the hope that these times might be coming back – until the pitch reveals its painful truth.
This year Real Madrid beat Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the final. The Saudis had previously eliminated Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo, the South American champions.
It is the sixth time since 2005 that the South Americans have lost in the semi final – an event which is becoming increasingly frequent. It is becoming harder to justify the status that the South American champions are given.
Why should they come straight in at the semi final stage if the evidence points to the conclusion that they are no longer automatically superior to the champions of Asia, Africa or North America?
The issue of the Club World Cup is likely to become more explosive in the next few years. FIFA acknowledge that the current format has not been a success.
From 2025 they plan to replace it with a new expanded competition, probably to be held every four years. The idea is to gather 32 teams from around the world and play a proper tournament.
This, as Sepp Blatter pointed out all those years ago, needs more time – and finding it will not be easy in an already over-cluttered calendar.
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And it also needs the cooperation of the Europeans, who at this stage seem dead set against the idea, fearing that the aim is to encroach on the success of the Champions League.
There is huge potential for conflict here. Many in Europe have not been paying much attention to the Club World Cup. They might end up having to pay attention to an issue that could even lead to a split in FIFA.
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