Roberto Carlos, owner of one of the most iconic left boots in footballing history and one of the most exciting full-backs the world has ever seen, recently claimed “I know first-hand how important international competitions like the FIFA Club World Cup are to both players and fans”. The agenda of FIFA’s most recent summit included a proposal for change in the structure of the FIFA Club World Cup, a competition that never seems deserving of the ‘World Champion’ title the winners receive. Money seems to be the central focus of these new developments, no matter what Carlos, nor any famous ex-pro turned FIFA ambassador, says about it.
This year’s competition, which will be played off over the course of 10 days in December in the United Arab Emirates, will follow the current format and will feature the six champions from each of the continents, as well as the host club Al Ain FC. The proposed changes, incentivised by a lucrative investment should more of Europe’s top-flight clubs be included, would not be implemented until at least after 2024, as the international and club footballing calendars have already been laid out until that year and major changes to this would be unlikely. Some propositions included a 24-team competition held in mid-June, but with national team competitions and player welfare and recovery before pre-season to be considered, it’s difficult to see how that could be included.
Some clubs were initially reluctant to even entertain the idea of extra games, but, in the end money speaks. Some La Liga clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona in particular, threw their support behind the possibility of new developments after hearing about the potential revenue, with more than 100 million pounds being promised to each participating club (those figures not including prize money and bonuses). These are the same Spanish teams looking to organise ‘home’ league fixtures in the United States, showing great ambition in terms of expanding a global brand and little regard to the Spanish football faithful. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin’s scathing comments before FIFA’s most recent summit in Rwanda encapsulated the opinion of many on the proposals: “I cannot accept that some people… who are blinded by the pursuit of profit are considering to sell the soul of football tournaments to nebulous private funds”.
Despite only being an official annual fixture since 2005, the FIFA Club World Cup has a well-established reputation in its short history. South Americans teams regard it with strong aversion and a characteristic chip on their shoulder because of the manner in which intercontinental club games proceeded before FIFA stepped in. European teams tend to win the competition on a yearly basis at little more than a jog, and therefore the competition is viewed as an extra fixture top-flight teams can ill-afford in an already demanding season calendar. The teams they lay out are similar to a Chelsea or Manchester City match day squad for the third round of the FA Cup. It lacks the romance, excitement and history of midweek Champions League matches in the footballing cauldrons of European giants or of clubs on fairy-tale runs of form.
Other continents weren’t invited to participate in the intercontinental club competitions that preceded the FIFA Club World Cup. These years of exclusion hindered the development of footballing culture and competitive club football in these regions, going some way to explain their recent struggles in this competition. Their only exposure to intercontinental football came in the form of competitions with the national team, and accordingly, the ‘real’ World Cup and the honour of representing one’s country, are held in much higher regard than the club edition.
Only on four occasions has the competition been won by a south American club, with these being the only successes for a non-European side. Incidentally, only three clubs from outside South America and Europe have made it to the final. There has always been a gulf between Europe and South America, and all the other continents in terms of the level of club competitions. This gap is only going to grow, with the vast disparity in financial investment across the world.
The new formats are being advertised as a way to bring more money into the continents that are struggling and to promote the game, but it is hard to see much of the money invested in the competition being fed into the game at grassroots level. The majority will be needed to guarantee the participation of the ‘top of the bill’ clubs, the headline grabbers that are needed to turn this sporting competition into a profitable business venture. Any views that these developments might be in the interest of the global development of the game are greatly undermined by the relatively recent exposure of the federation’s deep-rooted corruption, an albatross around their neck that they haven’t been able to shake.
If you were to stand outside 229, rue Saint-Honoré in Paris today, you’d find a high-end boutique, not what you’d expect from the building where FIFA was founded. However, taking recent events into account and the reputation FIFA has developed as a result, it’s not difficult to see the similarities between two profit-focused businesses. Even though the international federation now finds itself based in Zurich, you wonder how far FIFA have come from that upmarket Parisian avenue.