The Club World Cup: Football’s white elephant

Date published: Friday 16th December 2016 8:00

There has never been a better time to be an armchair supporter. On Sunday evening, viewers in the UK can watch Monaco vs Lyon, Lazio vs Fiorentina, Barcelona vs Espanyol and Sporting CP vs Sporting Braga – and that’s ignoring the pinnacle of British sport, the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year show. At the weekend, I would strongly advise shutting the door, drawing the curtains and watching live matches screened from 12 different countries in a 40-hour period on your television. Take that, manufactured Christmas spirit.

Given that all-you-can-watch world buffet, it’s odd that one thing you can’t witness on Sunday is the crowning of the best club in the world. The Club World Cup final between Kashima Antlers and either Mexican club America or, let’s face it, Real Madrid, is not being broadcast on UK television. The broadcasting deal extends only to highlights on the BBC Sport website that you probably won’t watch.

In the climate of blanket news coverage, it takes an especially strong strain of disinterest for an international football tournament to pass almost entirely under the radar. Wednesday’s semi-final between Kashima and Atlético Nacional merited mention only after referee Viktor Kassai awarded a penalty using video replay for the first time. Anyone caught naming all seven participating teams on demand will be given withering looks or asked if they’re okay in a soothing voice. The Club World Cup has become, or maybe just always was, a PR non-entity. How many of the keenest football enthusiasts know the host city for the final (Yokohama) or when the showpiece takes place (Sunday, 10.30am)? 

The CWC’s lack of relevance in Europe is slightly odd, all things considered. The club game is swallowing its international counterpart – the World Cup is the glorious exception – yet when those two concepts are forced together, the result is a failure. This is the only stage on which competitive domestic football can be staged between teams on different continents, the champions of the six confederations of the world competing for the title of the world’s greatest – what’s not to love?

Everything, apparently. Even FIFA’s insistence on covering everything they touch in gold leaf and glitter has made no inroads with an audience that does nothing but shrug its shoulders at a competition that ranks somewhere between the Checkatrade Trophy and Scottish Cup.

England’s lack of participation in the tournament doesn’t help. Manchester United and Chelsea are the Premier League’s only representative in the last decade, but neither 2012 nor 2008 exactly captured the hearts and minds of supporters. Waiting six months after Champions League final success for another hurrah in a far-off land is hardly likely to ignite fevered passion, either. As Toni Kroos said in an interview with FIFA.com: “Lifting this title for a third time would be special for me. It means that I’ve won the Champions League three times.”

The domination of European teams also creates an interest vacuum, with the Champions League winners victorious in eight of the last nine years. Corinthians beating Chelsea in 2012 was the only exception. The first week of the tournament has become a competition to see who can lose to a European giant in the final. The CWC has become the Charity Shield of the global game, an asterisk placed next to victory or defeat.

However, it is only Europe that ignores FIFA’s domestic showpiece. Last year, 15,000 River Plate fans took the 30-hour flight (and considerable expense) to Japan to support their team against Barcelona, with the club prioritising the tournament in the weeks before flying to Asia.

“This is a unique moment and I wouldn’t change it for anything,” River midfielder Carlos Sanchez said. “I’m not going to have another opportunity like this.” This was not a PR-fuelled compliment either. In South America, the CWC is the pinnacle.

Unsurprisingly, changes are afoot. Last month, FIFA president Gianni Infantino proposed wholesale alterations to the tournament which would see it moving from December to June, and the number of teams participating rising from seven to 32. The intention to provide a rival to a possible UEFA Super League is clear.

There is a distrust of everything FIFA has done, is doing and will ever do, and the word ‘expansion’ always causes widespread wincing, but there are as many reasons to welcome Infantino’s changes as to dismiss them. Systematic change is the only means of addressing majority disinterest. Read that broad description again: The champions of the six confederations of the world competing for the title of greatest team. It has stirred something in my footballing loins.

For now, we’re left with what we have: The shell of something meaningful crammed into the middle of a busy season. Until change comes, the Club World Cup will exist as football’s white elephant competition, most famous in the UK as the cause of Manchester United’s withdrawal from the FA Cup in 1999/00. All the glitz, some of the glamour, none of the gravitas. It is FIFA in football tournament form.

Daniel Storey

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