FIFA Club World Cup: Chelsea’s bauble, but now scrap it or expand it properly

AS A Chelsea fan, I am pleased the club has won the FIFA Club World Cup, but I cannot help feeling the competition is an unnecessary interlude that we could do without. It’s hard to get too excited about a seven team tournament with five makeweights and a decent team from South America. 

It has all the attraction of a pre-season competition that could easily be diluted to an annual play-off between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and the UEFA Champions League, but even then, is that worth it? We all know that the top European clubs are too strong for the best that South America can offer.

This isn’t trying to dismiss the top teams from Argentina and Brazil, because there’s nothing more romantic than the idea of Chelsea versus Boca Juniors, Manchester City versus River Plate and Liverpool against Flamengo. But this kind of imaginative thinking belonged to an age where unknown, mysterious teams used to play Europe’s top club in the old Club World Championship, a two-legged tie which was often brutal, dramatic and bordering on feral.

There’s nothing better in sport than claiming your team is the best in the world, but the FIFA Club World Cup is not the competition that truly determines that lofty title. It’s six teams who won their regional champions league along with a host nation side. It’s a little like putting the Premier League champions in a competition with the winners of the Championship, League One, League Two and National League and expecting a meaningful and satisfying tournament.

It’s no wonder it is hard work trying to get Europeans to take it seriously, they’ve been brought up on bloated competitions like the UEFA Champions League, the European Championship, the World Cup and Europa League. They have to work hard for their trophies, but the FIFA Club World Cup looks like a mid-season break, a few days in the sun to play a semi-final and final. Great for the fans who make the trip to places like the Middle East, Japan or Morocco, but there needs to be more substance.

If FIFA wants people to take it more seriously, then the competition has to be moved to centre stage. In other words, host it in a major football nation rather than the equivalent of football’s emerging markets. The cynics among us see this is as a way of raising money from highly-enthused associations who want credibility and to be part of the game’s mainstream and are willing to pay for it. A perfectly respectable ambition, but sometimes it appears FIFA are overdoing it. Want the FIFA Club World Cup to capture the imagination of a global audience? Move it to Madrid, Berlin, Paris or Buenos Aires. Better still, if they don’t fancy giving the 2030 World Cup to Uruguay, why not get them to stage the first expanded World Club Cup? Let the rising nations host it by all means, but if you want to build some positive momentum, get the mature markets behind it.

As it stands, the current format needs scrapping, for a minimalist format simply has too many weak teams. Put it another way, if the regular World Cup was a seven-team competition, how would Brazil, England, Mexico, Tahiti, UAE, Saudi and Egypt look? If, however, it was a 16-team programme, there would be enough strong sides to make for a more balanced schedule.

The South Americans see the competition as being prestigious and the idea of a World Cup for clubs, in theory, should be just that. They want to pit their skills against European clubs who have more money, dominate the football media and make the most noise. Since it became what it is today, Europe’s teams have been far too strong and the last winner from CONMEBOL was Corinthians in 2012, who beat Chelsea 1-0. 

In theory, given the financial resources and depth of their squad, Chelsea should win the FIFA Club World Cup. According to Transfermarkt, Chelsea’s squad is valued at £ 795 million, while Palmeiras’s is worth around £ 162 million. So, if nothing else, there is more at stake in not winning than actually winning as far as the club’s reputation is concerned.

That’s not a reason to run such a lop-sided and shallow competition. FIFA wanted to expand to a 24-team format, but the pandemic got in the way. They should experiment with 16 and see how it is received, not just by the fans, but also the participants. There’s already a crowded fixture calendar, so they have to find a way to make any new concept workable. 

Otherwise, bad organisation, domestic disruption and a tepid reaction from those clubs involved would make the exercise a failure. Meanwhile, Chelsea will enjoy another trophy and the supporters will relish singing “Champions of the World”, but the real pleasure is from denying someone else the honour. And that was probably the motivation all along. “We know it isn’t really a big deal, but we are not allowing another team the opportunity to say they are the best in the world.”

The Super League – who is really hiding behind the leaked document?

IT’S BACK again, the threat of a European Super League involving 15 fixed clubs and five lucky qualifiers. We can easily name the likely 15: there’s six from the Premier League; three from La Liga; three from Serie A; two from the Bundesliga and one from Ligue 1. It’s almost certainly the usual suspects, the first 14 in the latest Deloitte Football Money League and stray giants AC Milan.

The strategically-leaked document, which has turned up all over the place, shows no sign of accountability. Normally, one might expect a logo or two to indicate who has put the paper together. But there’s nothing to suggest where the proposal is coming from, no real mention of the universal benefits of such a structure and no attempt to convince. In other words, nobody is asking for approval. And nobody has yet to claim responsibility.

We can make a good guess where the idea originates from because without the involvement of some of Europe’s blue riband clubs, there would be no mileage in the project. But everyone is hiding and even some clubs that have been named as driving forces are distancing themselves from the controversial concept. If this is such a great idea, then why doesn’t anyone confidentally step forward?

Killer

It’s pure cowardice, because the clubs know that such a proposal would attract a mountain of negativity, mostly around the self-interest of the behemoth football houses and the damage it might do to the football eco-system. Social media will destroy anyone supporting the league. 

This just doesn’t make sense and will effectively kill it before it can gather momentum. Why? Because without providing credible discussion points around the rationale and pluses of a super league, the governing bodies, media, supporter groups and vast body of opposition clubs will prevent it happening. If those that produced the paper want to gain backing for their league, then they have to canvas, cajole and compromise. Throwing it out there, running away and waiting to see what will happen is foolhardy. OK, it makes good copy, but actually, it is getting a little tedious.

A super league might actually be the natural evolution of the UEFA Champions League, but not in the way influential clubs are trying to create. This should be UEFA’s idea, devised by them, proposed by them and fully-aligned to domestic football across the continent. 

The timing couldn’t be worse or more cunning. Football clubs across Europe have suffered from a loss of revenue due to the pandemic, as noted by Deloitte in their latest Football Money League. All the top clubs saw their overall revenues decline, Barcelona, the number one club by income (€ 715m) experienced a 15% fall, but the downturn varied at Real Madrid (-6%), Bayern Munich (-4%), Manchester United (-19%), Liverpool (-8%), Manchester City (-11%) and Paris Saint-Germain (-15%).

While matchday income and broadcasting income fell right across the board, 12 of Deloitte’s top 20 were boosted by increased commercial revenues. It is difficult to see the proposal of a super league anything other than a commercial enterprise. It’s curious that the involvement of bank financing from JPMorgan Chase was mentioned in much of the coverage, but no confirmation of the clubs that will undoubtedly be involved.

Supply

UEFA, FIFA and the European Union are all against the plan and FIFA have said anyone who plays in any super league would be banned from their competitions. This could prove a major stumbling block as it could start a player drought. But it is not just players that might be in short supply, what about managers and coaches, will they not be impacted?

Admittedly, the 15 clubs already have most of the world’s best players – 77% of the Guardian’s top 100 and 94% of the top 50 in KPMG Football Benchmark’s player valuation database. The clubs already trade heavily among themselves – Real Madrid, over the past five years, have dealt with 14, Manchester City 11, Barcelona and Chelsea nine.

But there’s also mention of the super league sending 12 teams to the annual revamped FIFA Club World Cup. How could they possibly even factor that into the equation unless there was reasonable hope that FIFA would buy into their scheme? Shouldn’t they be invited rather than assume they can even consider sending a dozen to China, Qatar, Morocco or wherever FIFA decide to host their new competition?

While the 20 involved clubs (the permanent 15 and five qualifiers) will play their 18 group games (two groups of 10) in midweek, they will also participate in their domestic leagues. How important will the Premier League be to the half dozen clubs who will appear in the super league, given their involvement is guaranteed in the latter? And surely, the FIFA Club World Cup will then become more important than the Premier?

This all could, of course, just be a tactic to push the governing bodies into a corner and for Europe’s giants to squeeze them for more cash, just as they have in the past. The tail is certainly wagging the dog, but the dog has got significantly weaker over the past few years. The clubs are so strong and they know that if they take their ball away, UEFA would struggle to produce a compelling Champions League that appeals to broadcasters and sponsors around the globe. This is a game of poker and at the moment, with the world suffering from covid-19 and lockdown fatigue, people are tired and bored of repeated attempts to bully the game into submission and introduce more elitism.

It would help if we knew who is really behind this attempt to challenge the status quo. If their paper is so marvellous, then stand behind it, explain it, try to change hearts and minds and, above all, present something that benefits the broader football world, not just 20 privileged clubs. The future of football is at stake, after all. Isn’t that worth a little more than USD 3 billion?

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images

Another title, now Ghangzhou look ahead to the opportunity of 2021

THERE’S LITTLE doubt that China’s most high-profile and successful club is Ghangzhou Evergrande Taobao, who lifted their eighth Chinese Super League title at the start of December 2019. Ghangzhou are not only China’s most celebrated club, they are arguably the noisiest across the Asia Pacific region.

The 16th Chinese Super League championship race was a tense, problematical affair, probably the hardest title win Ghangzhou have endured among their triumphs. It was not until the final game of the season they clinched the top prize, finishing two points ahead of Beijing Guoan.

The campaign was bizarre in places, with Guangzhou relieving coach Fabio Cannavaro, of his post in October as punishment for poor performance, only for the Italian World Cup winner to return in November. This suspension amounted to a very public reprimand, underlining that China has very particular ways of conducting business, as the recent Mesut Özil saga revealed. Cannavaro was accused of being “weak” and slow to respond to problems.

He was expected to lose his job and names like José Mourinho were being linked to the club, but he survived the wave of speculation and his somewhat humiliating punishment. Now, despite rumours that he will be looking to return to Europe and a job in Italy, he is talking about staying in China. “I hope to reduce the average age of the team, get in better replacements and continue to provide talent for the national team,” he recently said. The last part of that quote is very relevant as clubs are bound to providing talent for the China national XI. Even if they don’t mean it, they have to say it publically.

It would seem unlikely that Guangzhou will throw money around as they have in the past. Back in 2016, they created a stir when they spent € 42 milllion on Jackson Martinez and more recently, they tabled a similar amount for Paulinho and € 19 million on Talisca.

But there has been a change of stance in China, primarily because the government has issued a caution about clubs bringing too many mercenaries to the Super League. There is also a big levy on overseas signings. Furthermore, China’s economy, which has been expanding at a fast rate for the past decade, has started to slow – in the third quarter of 2019, GDP grew by 6%, the lowest since 1992.

There are also issues closer to home for the club. In 2018, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao posted a loss of Yuan 1.8 billion, which translates to around US$ 267 million. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has limited financial deficits at US$ 46.4 million, so Guangzhou, in 2019, will need to have reduced their expenses by 50% and deficit by 80%. If they have not achieved their objectives, they will be fined by the CFA.

Brazilian football player Paulinho of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao F.C., right, protects the ball during the 30th round match of Chinese Football Association Super League (CSL) against Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.

This could be a hurdle given they have a big wage bill to service, Guangzhou pay their players an average of US$ 2.2 million per annum, almost twice the league’s average. In a country where the average annual salary is just US$ 6,600 , it takes a CSL player just 2.25 days to earn the annual average wage.

Elsewhere, there have been stories that players at some clubs have not been paid on time, notably in the lower leagues. Also there has been some discontent among fans – six Beijing supporters were arrested after walking to a match (!). The CFA also caused a stir when they changed the rules concerning foreign players in mid-season.

Guangzhou were pushed all the way by Beijing Guoan, who won their first 10 games and topped the table from April to mid-July. A couple of defeats in September put pressure on the South China Tigers (their nickname) and with one game to go, Guangzhou still hadn’t shaken off Beijing Guoan. A 3-0 win at the Tianhe Stadium was enough to maintain the two point margin, despite the team from the capital winning 3-2 against Shangdong.

Guangzhou’s leading scorer was Brazilian midfielder/striker Paulinho with 19 goals, 10 behind the Chinese Super League’s top marksman, Guangzhou R&F’s Israeli striker Eran Zahavi. Paulinho, the CSL player of the year, and his team-mate Yang Liyu, were named in the team of the year.

Having regained their title, Guangzhou will have one eye on the AFC Champions League, a competition they have won twice (2013 and 2015). The draw for the group stage has already been made and they will face South Korea’s Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim as well as the winners of Japan’s Emperor Cup, either Vissel Kobe or Kashima Antlers. Guangzhou reached the semi-finals in 2019 and the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League seven times in eight years.

But what of the longer term? There’s more adjustments ahead for Chinese football. The CFA has announced that there will be a salary cap for incoming players, with wages capped at € 3 million, while domestic Chinese players will be capped at Yuan 10 million. The market may have become less attractive for foreign players. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s controversial plan for a world league, which would surely involve Guangzhou, is most probably a dead duck, but it is clear that changes are afoot in world football. Such projects are not based on football common sense alone  – China is one of the most important economies, so any blueprint for a global competition, financed by broadcasting as well as very wealthy sponsors, would undoubtedly call for Chinese involvement.

And then there’s the revamped 24-team FIFA World Club Cup, which is to be staged by China in 2021. This could be Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao’s chance to make a mark on the world stage, especially as the city will be one of the host venues.

Make no mistake, this a big club from a big city (population 15 million), watched by 45,000-plus people every week and backed by an owner with estimated personal wealth of US$ 30 billion. The club’s brand is the strongest in its local market and if a Chinese club is going to break into the global super bracket, it will surely be this one. Not for nothing do they have the motto, “be the best forever”.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA