By J Hutcherson (Feb 9, 2021) US Soccer Players – Let’s go ahead and insert all of the appropriate caveats. The 2020 Club World Cup is happening a month late and in a different year. Oceania’s representative opted out due to pandemic restrictions. South America didn’t get its champion until January 30. After lifting the Copa Libertadores, Palmeiras played a league game on February 2 before going to Qatar to play their semifinal on the 7. We’re talking about the twilight of the current version of the Club World Cup, a tournament that barely moves the needle even when there’s the occasional upset.
Sure, but Palmeiras losing 1-0 to Tigres has now created an opportunity that would resonate around Concacaf. Tigres plays Champions League holders Bayern Munich on Thursday (1pm ET – FS1). A Concacaf team lifting the trophy would be another important step for the region, carrying the top domestic leagues alongside it. At least that’s the obvious story to tell.
With that in mind, this would not just be a Tigres or Liga MX moment. Tigres’s route to the Club World Cup went through El Salvador, MLS, Honduras, and MLS again. It took a comeback against Alianza just to get out of the opening round. Dominant performances against NYCFC and Olimpia set up the final against LAFC. That 2-1 win was also a comeback.
What Tigres showed over the postponed and eventual neutral site finale of the 2020 Champions League is the strength of Concacaf relative to itself. What they’re now in position to show in Qatar is what that means in competition with the rest of the world. Well, if the Club World Cup worked that way.
Other clubs from other confederations have gotten past the South American representative. They’ve all lost to European clubs in the final. There’s never been a team outside of UEFA and CONMEBOL lifting the trophy. European clubs are on a seven-tournament win streak. The dominance is not only expected, it’s easily explained. Europe’s top clubs attract the world’s top players and pay them accordingly. Winning the Champions League is the de facto world championship for those simple reasons.
During Real Madrid’s recent run as the best team in Europe, they played in four out of five Club World Cups from 2014-18. Twice they didn’t face a CONMEBOL club. In 2016, Real beat Kashima Antlers 4-2. In 2018, it was a 4-1 win over Al-Ain. Neither of those games revitalized the J.League or the UAE Pro-League. The Club World Cup is currently a clear favorite always winning tournament with the resulting lack of interest. It’s the motivator for FIFA revamping it entirely.
Meanwhile, the Concacaf representatives have been slowly doing work. Pachuca finished 3rd in 2017. Monterrey did the same in the 2019 edition. Gremio needed extra time to knock Pachuca out before losing to Real Madrid. Monterrey lost 2-1 to eventual champions Liverpool. In between, Chivas lost to Kashima Antlers at the earliest opportunity, officially exiting in a penalty loss to Esperance de Tunis in the 5th-place game. A step forward, massive step back, another step forward, and now a spot in the final.
Again, what anybody chooses to take from this is Club World Cup dependent. It was easy enough to dismiss poor showings from Concacaf teams, by which we mean Liga MX clubs since they’ve had the Champions League on lock for years. It didn’t have to say anything about Liga MX, the Champions League, or Concacaf. It could just be compulsory participation in that tournament FIFA insists on holding every December before confirming, once again, what we already knew about European club soccer.
Even now, those caveats loom. This is a version of the Club World Cup in its twilight. The first edition of the revamped tournament was originally on the schedule for this summer. Rescheduling Euro 2020 and Copa America means FIFA’s summer of world-class club soccer will wait. That doesn’t make it any less of an eventuality. World soccer’s governing body will insist on its place in the elite club future. That means more representatives from the truly elite level to raise the tournament’s status.
That’s not Concacaf, regardless of what happens on Thursday. At least not now. One of the biggest takeaways from the conclusion of the latest work issues between MLS and the MLSPA is just how little Major League Soccer is spending on squads. MLS may be turning into a selling league, but it’s still operating with club budgets that wouldn’t pay for roster players at mid-to-high levels in Europe. That’s not a new issue, but it doesn’t match with the years of “league of choice” and talk of becoming one of the world’s elite. Then and now, there’s a price point for that.
Paying for talent is also an issue in Liga MX. They certainly do enough to maintain dominance regionally, but there’s also that same distinct difference compared to European leagues. Addressing that and bringing some of the unique allocation rules into line with world standards would immediately change the scope. Whether or not it’s economically feasible, it would force the elite clubs in Concacaf to take a different view for what works, not just domestically or regionally.
We knew that already, and none of it downplays this moment. Tigres has at least 90 minutes to decide the champion of the world. All of those caveats can sit next to the trophy they could be bringing back from Education City Stadium.
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:
- European club soccer may have no choice but to change
- Chelsea does as expected
- The value of MLS experience
- England’s FA announces a plan
Logo courtesy of Tigres