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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 5, 2012 | No Comments »
Posted in Other Competitions

Part I – Origins

It is for many the bastard child of world club football –  the answer to a question that would have been better left unasked.

For others, it is simply another example of FIFA’s money-grubbing ways – not content to leave club football to the federations (at least one of which appears to be doing a better job of managing both international & club football than they do), FIFA staged its inaugural “Club World Championship” in January of 2000. 

It was not warmly received.  Some considered it irrelevant and unnecessary.  Others believed it was nothing but a weak attempt by FIFA to usurp the glory (and gilt) that surrounded UEFA’s Champions League competition and, to a lesser extent, South America’s Copa Libertadores.

In truth, something approaching a global club championship was not entirely a new idea.  For decades the champions of the two major continental footballing federations (Europe and South America) had competed annually for the Intercontinental Cup (first run in 1960 and sanctioned not by FIFA but by UEFA/CONMEBOL).  

However, the only ‘question’ the proposed FIFA tournament would settle would be one that had for years been effectively addressed by a single neutral site game between what many believe are the only two federations that mattered in the world of football.  Many wondered quite how FIFA could improve this contest by adding clubs that were, in the grander scheme of things, irrelevant to the outcome.

In its usual style (staggering, obnoxious wealth and a comparable level of ignorance regarding the potential damage caused to others) FIFA proceeded with their grand plan to remake club football at its highest tier. 

Ignoring the obvious inherent problems in creating a competition of club teams with dramatically different financial and technical resources, they selected five of the six current confederation champions as of the end of 1999, the Intercontinental cup champion of 1998 (Real Madrid), the 1998 Copa Libertadores champion (Vasco de Gama) and finally the 1999 league champion of the host nation (Corinthians of Brazil), for reasons known only to the accountants in Zurich. 

By and large, the world yawned at the prospect of a competition between two top UEFA clubs (one of which, it couldn’t help but be noticed, wasn’t actually a current champion of any federation or international competition), two top CONMEBOL clubs (ditto), and four clubs that no-one really gave any credence to.

Undaunted, FIFA further diluted interest by organizing the tournament into two groups of four clubs, thus guaranteeing the maximum number of meaningless games.  Later, scheduling pressures also lead the alleged guardians of the great game to eliminate any form of knockout round (even semifinals) for this first tournament. 

In place of a knockout round, the two group winners would advance directly to the final while the two second place sides would meet in a consolation final.   If the term “ham-fisted bungling” has leapt immediately into your mind, you are not alone.

The group games featuring the Brazilian sides & Manchester United were well attended.  The others, even those featuring Real Madrid, were not.   In the end, Corinthians and Real Madrid went through from Group A (only a single goal differential separated the sides), while Vasco de Gama & Necaxa went through from Group B (with Manchester United losing out on second due to a single goal difference point as well).

Both finals were played at Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.  In a poorly attended consolation final, Mexican side Necaxa defeated Real Madrid on penalty kicks.  In the main final, Corinthians defeated Vasco de Gama on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes that featured no less than 8 yellow cards administered by referee Dick Jol.

Despite considerable greasing of the financial wheels, the FIFA Club World Championship did not enjoy a happy birth.  Neither finalist in the first tournament was a current federation title holder, and one was champion only of its domestic league (and, embarrassingly, the first FIFA club world cup).

Uneasy lies the crown, as the saying goes. 

But the curiousities did not end with the finalists.  The 1999 UEFA champions & FA Cup holders Manchester United had elected to withdraw from its own national cup competition (the oldest cup competition in club football, no less) in order to participate in the first Club World Cup. 

The FA were supportive of this idea and chose to draw by lot one of the second round losers to replace Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup (compounding the initial error in the minds of many).  For a new tournament (of questionable makeup) to steal away a defending champion from its national cup competition was unthinkable to many.

With Manchester United having won both the Champions League final in 1999 (in which they trailed Bayern Munich until the 91st minute, and then scored twice in stoppage time) and the Intercontinental cup, one team had effectively qualified twice. 

Rather than including the runners-up from either the 1999 IC (which would have meant three Brazilian sides in the 8 spots) or 1999 UEFA CL final, Real Madrid was selected to participate.  Their inclusion in the competition as the “past” Intercontinental cup champion was controversial. 

The Spanish club was far from alone in that category, though.   Manchester United arrived at the inaugural tournament having defeated Palmeiras (1999 Copa Libertadores champion) in the 1999 Intercontinental cup just five weeks earlier. 

Yet they found not the ’99 Copa Libertadores champions opposing them in group play, but their predecessors (Vasco de Gama, 1998 Copa champions) in what was an increasingly inaccurately titled  “2000” FIFA club world cup.  To some, it was becoming tragic comedy rather than sporting competition.

At very least, it must be conceded that this was an inauspicious start for a tournament that was supposed to take its place alongside the World Cup as the best club competition on the planet. 

Chief among the issues facing the fledgling Club World Cup was the most obvious:  the competition it was supposed to replace was still running, and arguably more capably decided the true title of “club world champion” than FIFA’s purpose-built tournament. 

Despite considerable financial and political pressure applied by FIFA, the Intercontinental cup would continue as a standalone event until 2005.  FIFA’s newest creation, however, would not be so lucky.

For 2001, FIFA decided to expand the competition to 12 teams split in three pools during the group stage. 

After the lesson of 2000, a semifinal knockout round was incorporated that would include the three group winners and the best of the second place finishers.   The qualification/selection process was much modified as well (though it remained a curiousity, with 3 clubs not current champions and the domestic league champion of the host nation still qualifying), with the competing clubs having been defined as follows:

  • 1999-2000 UEFA Champions League winner
  • 1999-2000 Winner of La Liga (Host nation entry)
  • 1999-2000 UEFA cup winner
  • 1999 & 2000 Copa Libertadores winners
  • 2000 winner & runner-up from CONCACAF Champions Cup
  • 2000 CAF Champions League winner
  • 2000 African Cup Winners Cup Champion
  • 1999 & 2000 Asian Super Cup Champion
  • 2000-01 Oceania club champions

While past year’s champions of some competitions were included, the current Club WC holders (Corinthians) were not.  Nor were the past champions of UEFA Champions League (Manchester United) invited.  Uniquely, the runner-up from CONCACAF’s Champions Cup – a modest tournament by this standard – had been invited, along with both the African Champions League and Cup Winners Cup Champions.  No-one could quite explain why both the 1999 & 2000 Asian super cup champions had been invited either.

Spain was selected as the host nation for the tournament.  However, perhaps mercifully, the collapse of FIFA’s marketing “partner”  ISL in that year helped to force the cancellation of the 2001 edition of the tournament (scheduled for July 28th-August 12th 2001).

Many suspected that FIFA experienced a general lack of interest in the tournament from major clubs during the run up to the scheduled 2001 event, and may have received outright refusals from some big name ‘qualifiers’ (likely due to the midsummer scheduling in Spain and the sheer number of games that would be necessary during what would normally be off-season time for most of the competing teams), and thus the field had been filled out using whomever was available and willing to play. 

If true, this would have made farce of the notion that the eventual winner be called “World Champion”.  While the expansion of the field to include more champions was laudable, the clear desperation involved in some of the selections was not.

At the time of cancellation, FIFA indicated that it would regroup and stage a new Club World Cup – perhaps with as many as 16 teams – in 2003.  In fact, that event never materialized. 

By the end of 2004, FIFA and the sanctioning federations of the Intercontinental cup had reached an agreement to end that long running competition and relaunch the FIFA Club World Cup as the ‘sole’ club world championship in 2005. 

As with the former Intercontinental cup final, this tournament would be played annually at a neutral venue in Japan (excepting 2009 & 2010, when it moved to the United Arab Emirates).

In part two of this series, we’ll look at the current iteration of the Club World Championship.

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