By Isidore Lewis
It’s the opportunity to be crowned the best club side in the world; the prize money is good and only the best sides from around the globe are invited to compete in this prestigious tournament. So why is it, then, that the FIFA Club World Cup is still largely dismissed as a worthless competition?
Much of the scepticism comes from the cup’s history as an overtly commercially-driven competition. For fourteen years between 1980 and 1994, the competition existed as the Toyota Cup after the Japanese car manufacturer signed a deal to become the leading sponsor of the tournament. An annual one-off match held at the National Stadium in Tokyo, it was seen as an opportunity to expand the reach of soccer and to promote the growth of the sport in Asia; something like the proposed ‘39th game’ in the Premier League, or the pre-season friendly competitions that exist now (such as the Barclays Asia Trophy, and so on).
Nowadays, with the competition recently relocating to Abu Dhabi, further cynicism has been directed towards world governing body FIFA for what is seen by many to be a political and financially-motivated move.
Formats and the ever-changing nature of the competition
The format of the competition has always been a point of difficulty for organisers.
The dilemma for FIFA exists as follows: Delivering too small a tournament means under-maximising the cup’s global commercial potential. Yet, make the tournament too big and the quality of the competition risks being damaged either through over-complication leading to a loss of interest, major gulfs in standards (between, say, Barcelona and a relatively unknown team from New Zealand) and – eventually – poor attendance levels. In 2009, for example, only Barcelona’s matches reached attendance levels of over 40,000, with the next highest being just over half that and a significant number of matches failing to attract even 10,000.
However, FIFA themselves have hardly helped the situation by constantly revamping the competition format and effectively dismissing the competition’s history, stating recently that: “With respect to the history of the FIFA Club World Cup and Intercontinental club competitions in years gone by, such as the Copa Rio in the 1950s, the FIFA Executive Committee endorsed the view that the first edition of this competition was held in 2000 in Brazil where Corinthians became the very first FIFA Club World champions. Other tournaments are not considered official FIFA events”.
When the Club World Cup first came about as the Copa Rio in 1951, it was set up as a tournament contested by eight teams split into two groups of four. However, when it was formally established as the Intercontinental Cup in 1960, the cup existed as a simple two-legged (home and away) tie between the champions of Europe and South America.
This had to be changed because the league-style points scoring system in place at the time meant that games ending in a tie would then have to be decided via a separate play-off. And the system was later abandoned in favour of, first, an aggregate scoring system – in line with that which is used today in the UEFA Champions League – before eventually being replaced altogether by a simple one-off match at a neutral venue, nominally the National Stadium in Tokyo.
The competition did develop some sort of consistency in the ‘80s and ‘90s (as the Toyota Cup). However, when the formation of a brand new tournament – the World Club Championship in 2000 – effectively saw two world club champions pronounced in a year (rather than replacing the Toyota Cup, the two tournaments would co-exist in conjunction with one another), questions were once again asked about the overall credibility and role of the tournament.
Even since the competition’s re-establishment as the World Club Cup in 2005 – merging and subsequently replacing the role of the Intercontinental (Toyota) Cup – FIFA has experimented with such details as extended qualifying rounds, increased prize money and the introduction of a fifth place play-off. The cup was even given a name change (from the World Club Cup to the Club World Cup). All of these ideas were ultimately intended to increase interest (as well as revenue and commercial potential, especially amongst weaker nations), but that have so far had only limited success.
Apathy from European clubs has also historically been a problem. In the 1970s, many European clubs declined to participate, which naturally served to undervalue the importance of the competition. Twice, in 1971 and ’73, European champions Ajax declined their invitation to play; as was the case with Bayern Munich in 1974, Liverpool in ’77 and Nottingham Forest in ’79. The 1975 final, intended to be played between Bayern Munich and Independiente of Argentina, did not even go ahead in the end as the two sides could not decide upon a suitable date in which to play.
Indeed, where European teams have typically seen the competition as something of a distraction, it has tended to be taken a lot more seriously amongst clubs from other continents. For clubs in South and Central America, Asia, Australasia and the Middle East, the competition represents an opportunity to compete against the might of Europe, a grand platform in which to showcase the club soccer of a given continent and, of course, a financial prize worth more than the relative drop in the ocean that it is for many European clubs. In South America and Japan, in particular, the timing of the World Club Cup also falls at a far more manageable time than it does for European clubs (i.e. at the end of the domestic season).
Politics and power struggles
When Manchester United controversially pulled out of the FA Cup in England in order to compete in the inaugural World Club Championship in 2000, the Manchester club was accused of turning its back on tradition in favour of financial gain; a situation made all the more embarrassing when United failed to qualify for the final.
This was not the only point of controversy regarding the new tournament. Indeed, it is widely believed that the launch of the competition at the turn of the millennium had begun to represent a wider political sub-plot in view of an emerging power struggle between FIFA and the European governing body, UEFA. FIFA had at the time become concerned at the growing influence of UEFA in world soccer and, with only really the World and Confederations Cups to its name, the world governing body wanted to increase its presence in club football.
After what has been a difficult few weeks for the world governing body – particularly given the poor press surrounding Qatar having won the right to host the World Cup in 2022 – FIFA will no doubt be hoping that it is soccer, and not politics, that does the talking when the tournament kicks off in Abu Dhabi this week.