Chelsea complete trophy collection
Club World Cup victory makes the Blues the fifth European club to win every major trophy
At long last, Chelsea are world champions. Roman Abramovich beamed, chatting away on the pitch of Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. Chelsea have now won every single trophy available since the Russian acquired the club in 2003, his stratospheric investment prompting the era of Europe’s super clubs. In a dramatic and suspenseful final of the Club World Cup, Kai Havertz’s extra-time penalty was the difference against South American champions Palmeiras. No one expected the Sao Paulo club to play for possession: Palmeiras coach Abel Ferreira applies an unabashedly conservative style, asking his team to defend and then defend some more, lurking on the counter-attack.
The Portuguese coach relishes the big games and the planning that goes with them. He is something of a mini-Mourinho and Palmeiras lined up with effectively a six-man defence against the European champions, with wingers Gustavo Scarpa and Rony helping the full-backs out in
defence. Palmeiras’ formation was a 6-4-0, at times a 6-2-2.
His players executed the game plan to the letter. Ferreira had no interest in possession and his approach almost worked. It was a final decided on details: Romelu Lukaku heading Chelsea in front, Raphael Veiga equalising from the penalty spot and Havertz demonstrating his knack for decisive goals, having scored the winner in the 2021 Champions League final that took Chelsea to the United Arab Emirates.
The German’s strike left the Brazilians heartbroken. Palmeiras were hell-bent on victory to silence local rivals Santos, Sao Paulo and Corinthians who have all won the competition. In general, South America has always loved the Club World Cup. It’s the moment when the region’s clubs can emulate the very best, the fans get behind their team like never before and the media build-up goes into overdrive.
That was in evidence again in Abu Dhabi where Palmeiras fans packed the stands with their drums and vocal support. For much of the week, they had flooded the streets of the UAE capital, which took over hosting the delayed 2021 Club World Cup after Japan withdrew because of COVID. In 2019, thousands of Flamengo fans travelled to Doha, dreaming of a repeat of1981 when Zico and Co. breezed past Liverpool 3-0. A decade ago, in 2012, 30,000 Corinthians fans flew to Yokohama, Japan, to witness history and see their club defeat Chelsea, 1-0.
Back then, Tite, the current Brazil coach, and his team sat back, absorbed the pressure and countered. He later explained that “Chelsea’s fragility was in front of its two centre-backs, [Gary] Cahill and David Luiz, and in behind [Frank] Lampard and Ramires.” Tite had also planned meticulously, acknowledging, like Ferreira, the superiority of European club football and the pointlessness of trying to go toe-to-toe.
And yet, there is a sense that the gulf between South America and Europe is closing a bit – at least from a Brazilian perspective. Flamengo, who took Liverpool to extra-time in 2019, and Palmeiras make up two thirds of a new trio of super clubs, alongside Atletico Mineiro. If anyone can come close to bridging the gap between the two continents, it is one of these three.
There is of course a caveat: Palmeiras arrived in the UAE thoroughly focused and obsessed with victory, while Chelsea treated the competition like a sideshow. On the eve of the competition, Chelsea had struggled their way past Plymouth Argyle in the FA Cup after extra-time; hardly European champions at the height of their power.
The observation goes to the heart of the question of where the future of football and the competition lay. Which clubs belong to the centre and the periphery of the global game? Can an expanded 24-team Club World Cup, with potential continental Super Leagues as feeder competitions, redraw the balance of power that today firmly lies with Europe and the riches of the Champions League?
Earlier in the competition, Al Ahly head coach Pitso Mosimane criticised organisers for a lack of respect towards
“Why does Palmeiras start the Club World Cup from the semi-finals? We beat them last year, what’s the difference? It is time for the African clubs to be respected”
Al Ahly coach Pitso Mosimane
African clubs as his team had to play without Egypt internationals against Monterrey in the second round because of a fixture clash with the Africa Cup of Nations. At a news conference, the South African boss said: “How many times do Africans have to prove themselves? What is the standard? Why does Palmeiras start the Club World Cup from the semi-finals? We beat them last year, what’s the difference? It is time for the African clubs to be respected.”
The African champions defeated their Mexican opponents1-0, but slumped to a 2-0 defeat against Palmeiras, the team they had pipped to third place in 2020, a feat they repeated with a spectacular 4-0 victory against nine-men Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia. Leonardo Jardim, the coach of the Asian champions, also complained of FIFA favouritism towards Chelsea.
“I’d like to give a warning to FIFA and I find it unfair some teams have to play four matches in eight days and other teams have to play two matches with their teams not rested,” he said. “There should be better care with the match schedule to recover so teams from Asia and South America can have the ambition to win this cup.”
His comments highlight that the Club World Cup is dearly valued outside of Europe. But the current seven-team format, shoehorned into a busy football calendar, is odd and pleases few – least of all FIFA. President Gianni Infantino considers the Club World Cup a way to both tap into the lucrative club market and keep UEFA’s power in check.
In his view, a bigger tournament would level the playing field, a valid concern that Palmeiras – to an extent – helped allay this year.