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John Bladen


The Tournament That Shouldn’t Be – A Brief History of the FIFA Club World Cup

Written by on December 9, 2012 | No Comments »
Posted in Other Competitions

Part II –  Rebirth

In December of 2005, the second coming of the FIFA Club World Championship (more commonly known as the Club World Cup) was unveiled. 

As an attempt to placate some of the major clubs (who believed that the proposed 2 week tournament in 2001 had too many games, too many weak opponents, and occurred during an increasingly short “off-season” in club football), FIFA reduced the number of qualifying clubs from 12 to 6 and moved the tournament back to December. 

While this allowed clubs from nations employing the traditional winter/spring schedule to compete during their normal season, it of course lead to increased fixture congestion for those same clubs.  In addition, the prize pool for this iteration of the Club WC was set at $16m, with $9m of that split between the two finalists.  This was a far cry from the $750k promised to each club that agreed to compete in the ill-fated 2001 tournament in Spain.

This edition also featured a new format:   A single knockout tournament with the champions of the four “weaker” federations playing off in two single leg “quarter” finals, while the European and South American champions went straight through to the semi final stage. 

This helped limit the tournament to 7 days duration, in keeping with the wishes of clubs in the middle of their league schedules.  In every respect this was a compromise solution for the clubs, the confederations, and FIFA itself. 

The tournament was dramatically smaller than the model FIFA wanted, but significantly bigger than the single game Intercontinental cup it replaced.  With only minor adjustments, this is the tournament structure that exists today.

For 2005, the competition included Liverpool FC (UEFA Champions), Sao Paulo (Copa Libertadores) Al-Ahly of Egypt (CAF champs), Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad (Asian Champions), Saprissa of Costa Rica (Concacaf) and Australia’s Sydney FC (Oceanic champions).

The new format debuted to good crowds in Japan in early December of 2005.  Sao Paolo required a 2nd half PK to defeat Al-Ittihad in one semifinal, while Liverpool hammered Deportivo Saprissa 3-0 in the other.  In a surprise to some, Sao Paulo ended Liverpool’s dream year with a 1-0 win in the final in front of  nearly 67,000 fans at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan.

For 2006, the tournament structure remained unchanged.  With Australia having switched from the Oceanic federation to Asian (fear not amateur geographers, the continent itself remained where it had been despite FIFA’s paperwork), for the first time a fully amateur club (Auckland city) would be included in what purports to be the biggest professional club championship in the world.

Al-Ahly returned as African Champions, losing to Internacional (Brazil) in the first semifinal.  FC Barcelona hammered Mexico’s Club America 4-0 in the other.  The final again produced a surprise result though, as Internacional defeated what had been perceived as an all-conquering Barcelona side 1-0 in the final.

In 2007 a small change was implemented in the qualification process.  Five of the six federation champions would still be granted direct entry to the tournament.  However, the Oceanic federation champion would have to play off against the reigning host nation’s champions for the final place in the six team tournament. 

Given that Oceania now consisted mainly of amateur and semi professional sides, this seemed a reasonable compromise and added only two days to the tournament’s length (crucially, only for those two clubs featured in the playoff game). 

However, FIFA’s famous bad luck/poor organizational skills struck again in 2007 and Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds won the Asian Champions League.  They were also deemed as Japan’s champion as winner of the J-league in 2006.  Thus, Urawa had effectively qualified twice. 

Had clearer thinking been the order of the day, perhaps the OFC representative would just have walked through to the 6th qualification spot.  In typical FIFA style, however, that didn’t happen.  A playoff game had been scheduled (and tickets and tv time sold), and a playoff game they would have come hell or high water (either clearly being preferable for FIFA to a refund of tv and ticket monies).

Thus Iranian side Sepahan – runners-up in the 2007 AFC championship – was initially awarded the AFC’s automatic birth in the tournament. 

However, since they were not actually champions of any Federation (having lost the AFC final to 2006 J-League champions Urawa), FIFA decided that they should be the club playing off against the OFC rep Waitakere United  (NZ) and forced them into “Japan’s” newly created slot in the increasingly curious qualification process. 

Oddly, while Urawa were designated as the J-league champions for the purpose of host champion qualification, Kashima Antlers had won the J-League for 2007 a week before the 2007 Club WC kicked off…  But FIFA’s rules for the tournament forbids two clubs from the same country competing (what?  the 2000 final?  Oh, surely no-one remembers that…).

Fortunately, Sepahan were not required to sing the Japanese anthem before their games.  Long time followers of FIFA’s political and organizational skills will, of course, not be surprised by any of this chicanery in the slightest.  

In any event, Sepahan made all the nonsense worthwhile by scoring all four goals in eliminating Waitakere Utd 3-1(og) in the now tortuously named play-in game.   Urawa eventually lost 1-0 to AC Milan in semifinal one while Boca Juniors defeated newcomers Sahel (Tunisia) by the same score in the other. 

The tournament ended with an unusually high scoring final that saw A.C. Milan defeat Boca Juniors 4-2, thus becoming the first UEFA member club to win the Club World Cup.

For 2008 the tournament that was once cancelled in part because it would have lasted two full weeks (and nobody really thought it was worth that much effort) expanded from 9 to 10 days. 

Lightning struck again for FIFA’s expensive, excruciatingly detailed and yet fundamentally laughable qualification process as Gamba Osaka won the Asian CL.  This time, though, Adelaide Utd was the highest ranked “non-Japanese” team in the CL (fortunately, runners-up) and took the host nation’s spot, despite the fact that Adelaide (like Isfahan, Iran before it) steadfastly remains a non-Japanese city.

This may be taken by some in Zurich as irrefutable proof of FIFA’s claim that football makes borders disappear.

The semifinals featured a spirited Gamba Osaka side losing 5-3 to Manchester United and LDU Quito of Ecuador eliminating Pachuca (Mex) 2-0.

In the 2008 final, United defeated LDU Quito of Ecuador 1-0.  Ferguson & his players even managed a smile (if a touch forced) while lifting the trophy for the assembled media.

The 2009 FIFA Club WC was the first played in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.  As might be expected when playing in a city (and nation) with so few facilities, players or fans, attendance dropped considerably from the impressive totals achieved in Japan to an average of less than 20,000 for the first time.  

Nevertheless, one incontrovertible positive of the change in venue was the fact that the position for “host” champion would actually be filled by a club from the host nation (Al-Ahli-Dubai, winner of the 2008-09 UAE pro-league). 

The local side went out easily to Auckland City in the preliminary round, who themselves were comfortably despatched by Atlante of Mexico in the QFs. 

In the semifinals, Barcelona ended Atlante’s run 3-1, while Conmebol Champs Estudiantes beat South Korea’s Pohang Steelers (Asian CL champs) 2-1.

Once again, this set up a UEFA v Conmebol final (all previous finals in the present structure have featured UEFA v Conmebol).  Barcelona defeated Estudiantes 2-1 on a Lionel Messi goal in extra time after Pedro had equalized for the Catalans in the 89th minute!

2010 may be regarded by some as the year the FIFA club world cup actually earned its name, if only in a modest way.  For the first time since Australia’s departure from the Oceanic Federation, a team other than the NZ champion won OFC’s champions league (Hekari of Papua-New Guinea). 

For the first time an African club (TP Mazembe, in their second consecutive appearance) made it past the semi-final stage.  Al-Wahda represented the hosts as champions of the UAE pro league, while Pachuca (Mex), Seongnam Ilhwa (Kor), Internacional (Br) and Internazionale (It) represented the other federations.

The shock of the 2010 tournament appeared to be Pachuca’s early exit at the hands of TP Mazemba 1-0 in the QF round.  However, the Africans went one better in knocking off former champions Internacional 2-0 in the semis (and cruelly robbing those of us who like to poke fun at this tournament of an Internacional v Internazionale final…). 

The Congolese side’s fabulous run ended in a 3-0 loss to Inter Milan in the final, but they could rightly be proud of being the first African club to reach the final – in fact the first non-European/South American club of any kind to do so.

This brings us nearly up to date as far as the history of the tournament is concerned.  In the final part of this series, we’ll look at this year’s edition of the Club World Cup, the problems this competition faces going forward and some possible methods of addressing its inferior status as a proper championship of club football.

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