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 good, the bad and then there’s Deyverson – Palmeiras retain the Libertadores

PALMEIRAS of São Paulo became the first South American club to retain the Copa Libertadores since Boca Juniors in 2001 in a somewhat disappointing final in the iconic Estadio Centenario in Montevideo. Palmeiras, affectionately known as Verdão (big green) or Porco (pig), deserved their victory against a shot-shy Flamengo from Rio de Janeiro.

We all admire South American cunning and guile, and Brazilian football’s reputation has been founded down the decades on the positives of the colourful Latino game, but it also has its less savoury, and occasionally, sinister side. Invariably, the reality of Brazil struggles to live up to the legend of 1970 and 1982.

Witness the appalling behaviour of matchwinner Deyverson, who attempted to feign injury when the referee, Juan Belatti, gave him a friendly tap. Rio-born Deyverson, who has played in Portugal and Spain, and briefly in Germany, assumed he had been knocked by a Flamengo player and went tumbling in theatrical style. He should have been carded, yellow at the very least.

Montevideo, the scene of the very first World Cup final in 1930, was swamped with Brazilian fans with hotels in the city fully booked for around a month. The Uruguayan capital was hoping for an economic boost from the influx of visitors after the financial problems of the past couple of years. The attendance for the final was over 55,000.

Given the status of the two sides, it was no surprise that the game was evenly-matched, although Palmeiras certainly enjoyed the best of the first period. They went ahead after five minutes when right back Mayke crossed low for Raphael Veiga to shoot past Diego Alves.

Despite their efforts, and they were stepped-up after the break, Flamengo didn’t equalise until 18 minutes from time. Needless to say, despite being quiet for most of the game, it was Gabriel Barbosa (Gabi), who netted with an angled drive that Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton should probably have stopped. Gabi scored both of Flamengo’s goals when they won the Copa Libertadores in 2019, beating Argentina’s River Plate in the final. Gabi netted 11 goals in the 2021 Copa Libertadores, making him the top scorer for the second time in three years.

Into extra time, Flamengo defender Andreas Pereira, currently on loan from Manchester United, slipped-up and Deyverson, who had only just come on as substitute, ran through and despite Alves getting a foot to the shot, the ball sailed into the net. Deyverson wiped away his tears as he celebrated. The São Paulo contingent in Montevideo went wild. It was enough for Palmeiras to secure a 2-1 victory.

The final underlined the dominance of Brazilian clubs in South America, which looks set to continue for the time being. A week before the Copa Libertadores, Athletico Paranaense won the Copa Sudamericana in Montevideo in another all-Brazilian final, beating Red Bull Bragantino 1-0. 

Brazil’s advantage in the region is also evident in the transfer market, with some big name players opting to return home, such as former Chelsea and Arsenal defender David Luiz (34) and Hulk (35). Admittedly, they are in their autumn years as players, but they could still command decent salaries in Europe.

Many clubs are crippled by debts, but Brazilian football still has cachet and is capable of attracting sizeable revenues. In 2019, for example, Brazilian clubs generated US$ 1.5 billion. As a comparison, the income of their counterparts in Chile and Argentina barely reached US$ 200 million in 2019. Flamengo, for example, enjoyed revenues of US$ 200 million, while Boca Juniors of Argentina, arguably the country’s biggest club, made around US$ 90 million. In all aspects – TV rights, sponsorship, transfer income, global profile – Brazil’s clubs out-perform their continental rivals.

In Série A, the season edges towards its conclusion with Atlético Mineiro top of the table, 11 points clear of Flamengo and 19 ahead of third-placed Palmeiras. Mineiro can clinch the title with victory against Bahia on December 2. And the team that includes Diego Costa of Chelsea and Atlético Madrid fame and Hulk could win the double as they play Paranaense in the Copa do Brasil final in December.

Meanwhile, Palmeiras and their hordes of supporters are celebrating and will enter the FIFA Club World Cup 2021, which will be played in February 2022 in the United Arab Emirates.