WHY have FIFA persisted with their lop-sided Club World Cup, a relatively unloved competition that carries little weight and goes quite unnoticed by most of the world’s footballing audience? This year, the mid-season holiday for blazers moved to Qatar, providing a testing ground for the controversial 2022 World Cup.
It’s very difficult to see this competition as anything other than a money-making venture and a PR exercise for FIFA amid tepid public interest. This year, however, around 70% of tickets were sold by the start of December, reflecting the enthusiasm of Flamengo and Liverpool fans.
FIFA appear to select venues where they have a good chance of getting lucrative corporate backing, such as the Middle East or Japan, markets that are eager to play their part in the continuing globalisation of the game. Europe has not hosted a single Club World Cup in its current set-up. This year’s competition has the additional title of “presented by Alibaba Cloud”, which indicates that a sizeable chunk of Chinese money is underpinning the event.
This does little for the reputation of the Club World Cup and although there is enthusiasm in some quarters, the general interest and media exposure suggests that nobody would miss it if this end-of-year gathering disappeared off the map.
You have to wonder if FIFA are truly committed to the competition in its current shape, why else would they use developing footballing countries such as UAE, Japan, Morocco and Qatar to host the winners of the various confederation competitions? The attendances in past years have not been overly impressive, with the last two years in the UAE drawing averages of 19,000 and 17,000 respectively. If it is all about throwing a bone from the top table to those that might not be eligible to stage something of the nature of a World Cup, that theory was destroyed by Qatar being awarded the 2019 and 2020 competitions. FIFA keeps digging a deeper hole for itself.
The Club World Cup is too small to have such huge imbalances among just seven participants. The World Cup we have known for decades has more than its fair share of weak teams, an element of the national team game that will only grow each time FIFA expand their flagship product, but ultimately, there are enough teams of substance to keep the quality at a certain level. In a seven-team format, hosted in an emerging market, genuine excellence is hard to find. Such is the disparity between continents that the Club World Cup should always be the winners of the UEFA Champions League against the Copa Libertadores champions.
Some might argue that only way a credible “world champion” club could be determined is if the field is expanded and more quality is added. Unfortunately, the outcome may not change much, Europe is so far ahead of the other regions, in terms of finance and playing strength, that we effectively have a world cup for clubs and it is called the UEFA Champions League.
The vast riches of Europe’s top clubs means even the best South Americans will struggle to keep pace with the leading names from Spain, England and Germany. The recent formation of the World Football Club Association may just spread a little democracy throughout the system, but it is likely that the noisiest – and richest – clubs will remain just as influential.
It has become clear that FIFA have recognised, to a certain degree, that club football is the golden ticket. Admittedly, the last two World Cups have revived interest in a competition that had taken a number of blows to its popularity. We endured some mediocre events in 1990, 1994, 2002, 2006 and 2010, but 2014 and 2018 rekindled the flame somewhat. With Europe’s major clubs becoming multi-national selections of all-star talent, the exclusivity aspect of the World Cup has long been diluted and the Champions League has taken over as the most compelling sports event on the planet.
FIFA’s plan is for a 24-team tournament in 2021, to be hosted in China – another example of the governing body’s bid to “share the love” around the world and also leverage a potentially lucrative link-up with Chinese and Asian sponsors.
Critically, a bigger competition will deliver higher broadcasting revenues as the format will allow them to broadly sell the rights across continents. As it stands, the Club World Cup has very little appeal and is often hard to find on TV. This year, the BBC is showing all games, a first for the UK.
There are questions about the validity of the competition, however. The gulf in standards across club football are arguably greater than they are in national team football. In this age of uber-clubs, there is no way a team from Oceania should be able to compete with a Real Madrid or Liverpool. Shocks do happen, of course, even in the Club World Cup.
Secondly, does the international football diary really need another major event? There is a sense of inconvenience about it among some managers – it is hard enough to get clubs to fully focus on cup competitions, let alone one that demands a long flight to Japan, China or Qatar and threatens to disrupt the league programme. The bean counters will point to the money the club can pick-up – £ 5 million for the winners – but is the title “world club champion” truly prestigious given some of the opposition is relatively weak?
In its current guise, the Club World Cup is one of those competitions that is great if you win it, but prompts a shrug of the shoulder and a cab to the airport as soon as a team is eliminated. Will it be any better when FIFA makes it 24? One thing is likely, if the revamped Club World Cup is a success, it will change the face of global club football and may even have an impact on the confederation competitions. This, in turn, may swing the balance of power away from UEFA and in the direction of FIFA. That aside, the problem of accommodating a worldwide club competition in an already crowded routine will become even more of a concern.