By J Hutcherson (Feb 9, 2022) US Soccer Players – There’s a way of looking at the February 2022 edition of the 2021 Club World Cup as FIFA just delaying the annual conversation about its relative merit by a couple of months. The Club World Cup hasn’t had it easy, replacing an unofficial world championship that only involved Europe and South America. Fast-forward to the 18th edition of FIFA’s version, and it’s Chelsea representing UEFA and Palmeiras of CONMEBOL playing for the world title.
While it might be tempting to pencil in the Club World Cup somewhere in the vicinity of the UEFA Super Cup in terms of importance, it should exist. Whether or not it needs two guaranteed games for each team, there’s value in an official world champion. The club game, tilted toward Europe as it is, lends itself to the concept.
The difficulty in making any version of a club World Cup work is something FIFA and the participants fully understand. It’s a logistics issue for leagues that don’t finish at the same time. Chelsea’s 2020-21 squad won the UEFA Champions League. Two transfer windows and half the new season later, they’re taking time away from domestic duties to play games that count in Abu Dhabi. It’s no different for Palmeiras, five matchdays into the Campeonato Paulista. Not only does the tournament require pulling teams out of their seasons, it requires pulling them out of different seasons.
FIFA might have addressed that with the summer revamp of the Club World Cup, but that hasn’t happened. Speculation runs into needing an answer for the biennial World Cup. Until that is clear, finding space in the calendar for a new-look Club World Cup remains as problematic as the current version.
In an ideal situation, the teams lifting the various confederation titles would move directly into a world championship tournament. So the teams involved would be those squads, extending their seasons and providing an obvious route to a world title game. From the debut of the Intercontinental Cup in 1960, that hasn’t happened. The first edition of that tournament saw Real Madrid travel to play Penarol on July 3. The return leg in Spain waited until September 4. Because points counted rather than goals, the 1961 version needed an extra game even though Penarol won the second-leg 5-0 at home. There’s always been something standing in the way of a simple answer to that world champion question.
Here we are decades later, still wondering what to make of the Club World Cup’s version of crowning a champion. We’ve seen outsider teams knockout the Copa Libertadores holder, but that doesn’t normally lead to a broad reassessment of those clubs. By design, it’s more about the South American team not advancing.
Last year saw Concacaf’s representative Tigres lose 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the final after knocking out Palmeiras. Al-Ain made the final in 2018 and Kashima Antlers in 2016, both losing to Real Madrid. There wasn’t a noticeable uptick of global interest in Liga MX, the UAE Pro League, or the J1 League after one of their clubs played for the world title.
Shouldn’t it, though? Shouldn’t the Club World Cup carry enough importance that a breakthrough club brings its league and its confederation with it? That’s certainly part of the story Major League Soccer has wanted to tell over the years. A tournament cancellation cost the LA Galaxy its spot in the Club World Cup back in the early 2000s. Since then, getting an MLS team to the Club World Cup has been a problem. Short of hosting the tournament, that takes winning the Concacaf Champions League. While it’s always tempting to stress the difficulty of playing games that count in Concacaf, the rest of the world isn’t all that interested.
Why would they be when the UEFA Champions League exists? There’s no doubt about the level of competition for that tournament or what it takes to navigate it successfully. The Champions League is in the position it’s in because it’s the home of the strongest clubs in the world. It defeats the purpose of another tournament to underline what we already know.
That points to the bigger problem with the Club World Cup. It’s the overall worldwide interest in a tournament designed to claim that simply by existing. Instead, it’s a forced understanding of the need for a world champion and this tournament as the best way to crown one.
Once again, that steps forward as Palmeiras and Chelsea play for a trophy on Saturday. It’s a trophy, won by navigating a tournament that begins for both of those teams in the semifinals. What it isn’t is THE trophy, the title that is above all the others because it confirms that whomever wins it is the best team in the world.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Preview: USMNT vs Honduras in 2022 Concacaf World Cup qualifying
- The Premier League at the January/February break
- Building a competivive roster in MLS is not getting any easier
- FIFA’s happiest New Year
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com