Spanish giants Real Madrid won the FIFA Club World Cup (CWC) on Saturday for a record-extending fifth time, beating Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia in a 5-3 slugfest in the final in Morocco.
Earlier that day, Brazil’s Flamengo defeated Egypt’s Ahly 4-2 to finish in third place.
The fourth place finish for Ahly, which were beaten in the semi-finals by Real 4-1, was a step backwards. They had finished in third in the last two editions. Altogether they have ended up in third three times.
That Ahly allowed eight goals in their last two games in Morocco was never going to get them far ahead in the seven-team event. But in their defence, the club had to play four matches in 11 days, which was a big ask. That large number of games in so few days is but one of several problems that besets the CWC.
Which is unfortunate because the Club World Cup could easily rival and in fact supersede the World Cup of nations. Fidelity to club is often so much stronger than to country. Most people are patriots who love their country but most people go bananas when rooting for their clubs.
The World Cup is the global showpiece of football watched by billions around the world but supporters of club football have a passion which is out of this world.
Strangely though, the Club World Cup never approached the popularity of the World Cup.
Firstly, it got off on the wrong foot. The first edition took place in Brazil in 2000 followed by Japan hosting it four straight times, eight in all out of the 19 tournaments.
The time difference between Brazil and the rest of the world is bad enough. Japan is so far flung from the rest of the world that what time it is in Tokyo is pretty much what time it is on Jupiter.
The difference in times meant that TV viewers in Europe, Africa and North America would tune in to CWC games starting in the middle of the night; some even at dawn.
That was an early drawback the CWC was never able to shake off.
Another woe for the CWC is its format. The club representing Europe or South America need only win one game – against a lower-level team at that – and they’re in the final. In what other football tournament, or any other sport for that matter, does a team need to win just once and, just like that, they waltz through to the final?
Whatever happened to the build-up, the anticipation, the climax? There is relatively little excitement or tension in the CWC. The arrangement is as laconic as “how do you do, thank you”. The tournament is finished before you know it.
The obvious consequence is that no team outside of Europe and South America have ever won the title. Real’s latest win brings the total to 15 European crowns and four for South America. That’s it.
True, the same argument also applies to the World Cup. European and South American countries have a hammerlock on the title. But at the very least, the World Cup has a group stage in which all countries, big and small, play in before the knockouts. And also, the country that wins the World Cup earns it since they must play seven games to get there. That’s also good enough for thrills and excitement to increase and dreams to grow before the crescendo is reached.
The Club World Cup is a European idea, first broached by former Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu to decide the best club side in the world (the first championship was in 1960 when it was called the Intercontinental Cup. Real Madrid romped past Penarol of Uruguay in a home and away affair).
But the CWC has never taken off in Europe. European fans don’t take it seriously and European clubs don’t care much for it either. The tournament this year falls at the same time as the major leagues in Europe and just a few weeks ahead of the resumption of the Champions League.
CWC’s struggles to attract interest in most of Europe is a problem because it is the continent where the heart of football beats the loudest. Argentina are the world champions these days but Europe is the region that historically has dominated the sport financially and geographically. It showcases the European Championship and the Champions League, the UEFA’s two most popular nations and club football tournaments. It also provides the World Cup with its majority of countries.
Because the Europeans have lost interest, so too have the media. The world is saturated with World Cup news weeks before the kick-off and during the spectacle, however, the Club World Cup assuredly does not force TV networks and newspapers to work overtime.
Acknowledging that the tournament has not drawn the interest that the concept warrants, late in 2022 FIFA announced an expanded tournament that would have 32 teams and start in June 2025 and perhaps held once every four years. Soccer’s global governing body has not provided further information but finally FIFA has recognised that it needs to both expand the tournament and find a time in an already busy calendar.
One new thing the Club World Cup came up with in Morocco was hooking up mics to referees to allow fans in the stadium and watching at home to hear match officials explaining decisions taken following Video Assistant Referee (VAR) reviews. It’s what the NFL (American football) has been doing for decades.
The first referee in Morocco to explain his decisions to spectators was China’s Ma Ning during the Club World Cup’s opening game between Ahly and Auckland City. Like many new inventions, this one had a glitch: nobody in the stadium or at home could hear what Ma was saying.
No matter. The Club World Cup in Morocco was the first event of a 12-month trial period in international contests. FIFA is considering further trials at the Under-20 World Cup in Indonesia in May and June. If deemed successful, the system may be given the green light for the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July and August.
However, the Club World Cup needs many more adjustments before major football clubs stop regarding it as more trouble than it’s worth. It needs a remodelling job.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly