Plans for a revamped Club World Cup were approved by a meeting of the FIFA Council on Friday but face opposition from UEFA and a possible boycott from European clubs.
The proposal, according to the AP’s Rob Harris, involved playing a trial tournament in late June and early July 2021 and having 24 teams in eight groups of three, with the winners of each group advancing to the quarterfinals.
The tournament’s winning team would have to play a total of five games, and most teams would only play two or three games. UEFA would get eight teams (down from 12 as UEFA reportedly wants less teams so the tournament doesn’t end up replacing the European Champions’ League), South America would originally get six, and other confederations would get three teams, with the final one slot going to Oceania.
However, European teams have refused to take part in the trial tournament, saying there is no room in the 2021 international match calendar and that players deserve a rest. They will consider participation after 2024.
For the Club World Cup to work, FIFA must listen to these objections rather than try and force through the tournament, but the proposal isn’t dead in the water yet, despite European clubs’ boycott. It just needs a rethink.
FIFA’s planned revamp isn’t perfect, but it has one massive advantage over the current Club World Cup format.
At the moment, the competition comes in the middle of the domestic season and has to compete with the Premier League, La Liga and the other top European leagues for viewers. Unsurprisingly, global fans would rather watch these fixtures than Kashima Antlers versus Guadalajara. The trial competition would take place in the summer when it has less big games to compete with for viewers’ attention.
The friendly matches that are played under the moniker of the International Champions’ Cup have proved a relative success, so even if fans viewed the revamped Club World Cup as nothing more than a series of glorified friendly matches, it would probably still be more successful than in its current format, simply because of when it falls in the global soccer calendar.
If FIFA considered moving the tournament from post-season to pre-season, around August 2021, then it could replace European sides’ pre-season games for that year and thus could take place without increasing the number of games that clubs would have to play.
However, this could give the revamped Club World Cup the feeling of a friendly tournament, which might damage its long-term prestige.
Scheduling is just one part of making the tournament a success. Another issue would be choosing the right hosts. From 2005 onwards, every winner of the Club World Cup has come from Europe or South America but the tournament has been held in just three different countries, all in Asia or Africa. The last edition took place in the United Arab Emirates, and half of the matches saw attendances of less than 20,000 with one match having less than 4,000 fans watching it. Playing the inaugural edition of the Club World Cup somewhere where it will be properly marketed and would see large attendances would go a long way towards reviving the Club World Cup brand.
But the 2021 tournament would be replacing the Confederations’ Cup, which as a sort of warm-up for the World Cup would likely be played in Qatar. Should FIFA decide to give the 2021 Club World Cup to Qatar as a replacement for the Confederations’ Cup then the tournament would already be off to a bad start.
FIFA has said that individual confederations would be able to decide how their teams would qualify for the tournament. The marketing men would no doubt want to see UEFA choose its biggest eight teams, but this could end up with the biggest teams taking the Club World Cup for granted and seeing it as little more than a summer exhibition tournament.
For the Club World Cup to have more prestige, qualification for the tournament has to be seen as a prize in itself. Through an imaginative qualification procedure, UEFA could kill several birds with one stone by allocating some of its places to Europa League winners as well as the top teams in the Champions’ League, boosting the importance of the Europa League. Another option could be to possibly place a limit of two teams per country. This would add some variety to the competition and prevent the ‘world’ tournament from ending up being a series of matches between London, Manchester, Madrid and Barcelona. UEFA could even consider a wildcard spot for teams from their proposed third club tournament.
The revamped Club World Cup tournament has the potential to be something special, but financial and political interests could easily get in the way and ruin it. If FIFA forces the top European clubs to play in 2021, then we could end up seeing a series of ‘injuries’ in early June and Chelsea reserves playing Man City reserves in a half-full stadium in Doha, which certainly wouldn’t be an improvement on the current tournament.