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