The FIFA Club World Cup semi-finals kicked off last night as Al-Hilal beat Flamengo 3-2 in Tangier, Morocco, with Real Madrid taking on Al Ahly in Rabat on Wednesday. Chances are that unless you’re a supporter of one of these sides, you might not have known that. This is because FIFA’s annual quest to crown the best football team on the planet usually takes place with little of the fanfare you would expect.
Originating in 2000 as the FIFA World Club Championship, the competition got off to an undignified start, at least on these shores. The inaugural tournament is almost exclusively remembered in England for the controversy surrounding Manchester United’s participation.
FIFA’s shiny new toy would conflict with the third round of the FA Cup, meaning Sir Alex Ferguson’s side could not play in both. The FA were in the midst of a bid to host the 2006 World Cup, and saw an opportunity to get in FIFA’s good books by accommodating their new tournament. So under advice from the governing body, United eschewed the FA Cup and went to Brazil to vie for the world crown.
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The move did not go well for anyone involved. United were poor in South America, winning just one of their three games and being eliminated. The 2006 World Cup would be awarded to Germany, as English attempts to curry favour with FIFA failed. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Meanwhile, the Red Devils became pariahs in their homeland, stoking fan and press fury with their decision. The Mirror produced a famous front page of celebrities condemning United, and it would be a long time before Ferguson’s men recovered from the vitriol of Caprice, Nick Hancock and Darren Day.
The tournament would not return the following year due to the collapse of FIFA’s marketing partner, and further attempts to revive it failed. It eventually returned in 2005, merged with its spiritual predecessor, the Intercontinental Cup. The latter tournament pitted the Champions League winners against the Copa Libertadores champions in a two-legged tie. The new format welcomed the European and South American champions along with those of Africa, Asia, Oceania and North America. Shorter than the original FIFA Club World Championship, the Club World Cup format would not cause as much disruption to domestic seasons. Never again would an English club need to fear incurring the front-page wrath of Barry Norman and Ian Botham.
Despite the streamlined structure, the tournament has never really caught on in Europe. In England, it is viewed with the same scepticism as the European Super Cup or the Community Shield. It’s nice to win if you’re in it, but it barely registers if you aren’t. This stands in stark contrast to the way the tournament is seen elsewhere. While European audiences have been trained to see the Champions League as football’s crown jewel, South America harbours a deep love for the Club World Cup. This is helped by the fact that Brazilian teams won the first three tournaments, thus quickly establishing it as a prestigious prize over there.
Another reason for the antipathy on European shores is possibly the fact that the tournament has never been held in a European nation. Japan has staged eight Club World Cups while Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have two apiece with Brazil putting on the first. To European audiences, the Club World Cup is a tournament that happens far away from their view, both geographically and in significance.
Of course fans of the tournament's remaining teams will be eagerly awaiting this week's semis and Saturday's final, as well they should. Nobody can begrudge fans a chance to savour possibly becoming champions of the world. But it is difficult to foresee the significance of any win extending far beyond the reaches of Real Madrid, Flamengo, Al-Hilal or Al Ahly. This troubled tournament may crown the world’s champion, but it seems destined to struggle for the world’s attention.
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