OPIN­ION

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS - Jer­rad­[email protected] Twit­ter: @Jer­rad­Peters

OR all its faults, and there are many, the FIFA Club World Cup is a plea­sur­able, if quirky, an­nual event.

Its brevity sat­is­fies the in­stant-grat­i­fi­ca­tion re­quire­ment of tour­na­ment foot­ball, and its in­ter­na­tional fea­tures ap­peal to the in­ner sports nerd who thrills on re­search­ing the squads and sto­ries of teams from New Zealand, Tu­nisia and Ja­pan.

It is, af­ter all, the only truly global club com­pe­ti­tion of the world’s most global game. It’s also small, which makes it very un-FIFA, and that it’s largely re­viled in Europe makes the mere act of en­joy­ing it a sort of act of de­fi­ance.

Now, it goes with­out say­ing that world foot­ball’s gov­ern­ing body would much rather its Club World Cup be widely and wildly pop­u­lar, a high-pro­file foot­ball fes­ti­val with a lu­cra­tive tele­vi­sion deal in­stead of a fringe pro­gram watched mostly on il­le­gal streams by geeks who have just learned ev­ery­thing there is to know about Team Welling­ton.

FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino floated pro­pos­als to re­vamp the com­pe­ti­tion as re­cently as Oc­to­ber, but as his ideas were ter­ri­ble and the money be­hind them mys­te­ri­ous, his coun­ter­parts at UEFA, which runs the Euro­pean region, game him short shrift.

They were right to do so (Ju­ven­tus pres­i­dent An­drea Agnelli re­ferred to In­fantino’s project as “dodgy,” ac­cord­ing to the Guardian), but they are also pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing the pres­tige of the UEFA Cham­pi­ons League, the win­ners of which have lit­tle to gain and much to lose each De­cem­ber at the ex­ist­ing event. Real Madrid, for ex­am­ple, will hardly in­crease their stature by beat­ing one of Chivas Guadala­jara and Kashima Antlers on Dec. 19 in Abu Dhabi. A loss, on the other hand, would be in­cred­i­bly em­bar­rass­ing for them, even if it shouldn’t be.

In­ci­den­tally, both Chivas and Kashima, who play next week­end in Al Ain, will be fan­cy­ing the op­por­tu­nity to take on a Madrid out­fit that has strug­gled might­ily this sea­son and sits fifth in La Liga.

Two years ago, at the Club World

FCup fi­nal in Yoko­hama, Kashima briefly led Madrid and took the match to ex­tra time be­fore a Cris­tiano Ron­aldo dou­ble sealed the vic­tory for the Spa­niards. They, or their Mex­i­can op­po­nents, will be look­ing to com­plete the up­set this time around.

On the other side of the draw, ei­ther Boca Ju­niors or River Plate will con­test a semi­fi­nal against one of African cham­pi­ons Esper­ance de Tu­nis, Ocea­nia’s Team Welling­ton and host side and United Arab Emi­rates ti­tle hold­ers Al Ain.

Boca and River, who played to a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their Copa Lib­er­ta­dores fi­nal, were sup­posed to square off in the re­turn fix­ture back on Nov. 24, but af­ter an at­tack on Boca’s bus and sub­se­quent se­cu­rity con­cerns, the sec­ond leg was moved to Madrid.

The Buenos Aires archri­vals will con­clude what has been a dis­grace­ful chap­ter in South Amer­i­can foot­ball his­tory on Sun­day, af­ter which the win­ner will fly to the U.A.E.

Esper­ance, for their part, will play a quar­ter-fi­nal against the win­ner of the Team Welling­ton-Al Ain match that will open the tour­na­ment on Wed­nes­day. En­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence af­ter los­ing three straight Ocea­nia fi­nals to Auck­land City, the Welling­ton play­ers have been tak­ing self­ies in Abu Dhabi, tagged #Ful­lThrot­tle in ref­er­ence to man­ager José Manuel Figueira’s slo­gan for the group.

Welling­ton mid­fielder Mario Bar­cia has re­ferred to the Al Ain match as “one of the most im­por­tant things” of his life, and cap­tain Justin Gul­ley is hope­ful the oc­ca­sion will be a boost to the club’s pro­file “and even for New Zealand foot­ball” as a whole.

Such are the sto­ries and joys that make this diminu­tive, pe­riph­eral com­pe­ti­tion what it is. Which is why, one way or an­other, it likely won’t be around in its cur­rent for­mat much longer.

But, for now, the Club World Cup is one of world foot­ball’s last un­ex­ploited fron­tiers.

For now it’s fun, it’s weird and it’s just out of the way enough for find­ing it to be a source of sat­is­fac­tion.

Spot-kicks

When At­lanta United host Port­land Tim­bers in to­day’s MLS Cup, their sell­out crowd of more than 70,000 will see them take own­er­ship of all top-10 spots in the divi­sion’s all-time at­ten­dance ta­ble.

And there will no doubt be a no­tice­able con­tin­gent of Port­land sup­port­ers in­side Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium as well. Even the Tim­bers’ vic­tory log has made the cross-con­ti­nent jour­ney. No mat­ter the re­sult, this fi­nal will be a loud, colour­ful af­fair that will show well on both the MLS prod­uct and its fan cul­ture.

The Group Stage Draw for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place to­day in Paris. Canada, ranked fifth in the world, are in Pot 1, which means they’ll avoid the likes of France, Ger­many and the United States in the open­ing phase of the tour­na­ment. The Women’s World Cup will take place June 7-July 7 in France.

VAHID SALEMI / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Mit­suo Oga­sawara (cen­tre) and the Kashima Antlers cel­e­brate af­ter win­ning the AFC Cham­pi­ons League against Iran in Novem­ber.

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