By J Hutcherson (Dec 17, 2019) US Soccer Players - It's hard to feign enthusiasm about the FIFA Club World Cup regardless of whether or not you support one of the teams involved. It's a tournament that asks an existential question every December. More to the point, it asks two. Why does it exist? If it has to exist, why is FIFA running it?
Crowning a world champion makes sense, but so does the obvious Europe vs South America route to get there. The old Intercontinental Cup had already faded in importance by the time FIFA shoved it aside, but it did its job. Since the founding of the Club World Cup, we've never seen a team outside of Europe or South America win it. That's not likely to change without a ridiculous set of circumstances that wouldn't necessarily flatter the tournament.
With UEFA and the European elite clubs pushing for another revamp of the Champions League, it's hard not to consider that tournament the de facto world championship. With all due respect to club soccer in other regions, UEFA clubs outpace all of them in the strength of their squads. The willingness to pay for that level of talent is what keeps them among the highest valued sports businesses in the world. There's no economy of scale with club soccer, no confusing whatever global parity might have once existed with the current situation. The elite teams regularly competing in the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League are categorically different than the other clubs in Europe, much less the rest of the world.
How FIFA factors into this at all is a good question. World soccer's governing body has already announced a complete revamp of the Club World Cup for 2021. The plan is to increase the number of teams and move it to summer in the old Confederations Cup slot on the international calendar. Since 2000, FIFA has tried and mostly failed to get the necessary buy-in to make the current version of the Club World Cup count. This is a reset in an attempt to assert their authority on the club game. It's an interesting choice, but not wholly surprising.
FIFA has been under European control as the Champions League increased its earning power. The former UEFA general secretary turned FIFA president Gianni Infantino is all about expansion. At his old job, he turned Euro 2016 into a bigger event. Expansion and rights exploitation is part of what he does. Had Infantino gotten his way, the Club World Cup would've already expanded and happened in the summer of 2019.
It's still worth asking about FIFA's role in global club soccer. It's not an organization historically involved in organizing club tournaments, leaving that to the confederations. The confederations fighting for their role over FIFA's in the club game doesn't seem likely, but neither did FIFA's insistence on having one.
Looking back, if at any point a club version of a World Championship made sense somebody would've tried it. The same may be true of a breakaway European Super League, but we've at least seen plans floated for that sort of thing. If a super league in Europe is one step, the next would likely be some form of a global league rather than a Club World Cup. As it's currently constructed, the Club World Cup sits on top of the confederation championships but not in a clear and obvious way. Moving the tournament to summer may help. That will allow the most recent confederation champions to play with squads closer to what won them those championships than waiting until the following season. With FIFA looking at an every four years Club World Cup, it won't be that obvious or simple.
For the other confederations, at least in theory, the Club World Cup is a bonified opportunity. They can knock out the European or South American representative and make a case for their club and region in the process. That happened last December when Al-Ain knocked out River Plate before losing 4-1 to Real Madrid in the final. Ultimately, it was the same foregone conclusion with how much it did for the UAE Pro-League and the Asian Football Confederation an open question.
MLS has stressed the importance of the Concacaf Champions League in part as an entrance to the Club World Cup. That global stage certainly matters, but Liga MX regularly squandering their Club World Cup opportunities hasn't meant much to that league. An MLS team showing that it's not competitive against either a South American or European champion is a slightly different route to that same conclusion.
What FIFA is facing here is a fight against the obvious. For the first edition of the Club World Cup, they decided to add a host team. The host team ended up lifting the trophy, beating the Copa Libertadores holders in the final. Did that take away from winning the Copa Libertadores? Did it matter at all to the Champions League winners? The answer to that now is the same as it was back in 2000, yet FIFA keeps insisting that we need a club world championship.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Shame will not stop a super league
- The next era in MLS
- FIFA and UEFA consider the future of the club soccer schedule
- The rise of the lower seeds
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