Bigger not always better

The Club World Cup could soon be getting a revamp, but a new souped-up format may not be the answer for the admittedly unloved competition (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, Friday 16th December, 2016

Last month FIFA president Gianni Infantino spoke to media in Europe about his wish to restructure the Club World Cup.

The competition, which began under its current guise in 2000 and is taking place for the 13th time this year, is an odd tournament that is a good idea on paper but hard to execute in reality.

A key issue is that it’s difficult to find a window in the increasingly packed international football calendar to suit all the participating clubs. Kashima Antlers, for instance, only secured their place five days before the opening game of this year’s edition, while Real Madrid were forced to endure a long haul flight immediately after their La Liga match against Deportivo La Coruna in order to take part.

Infantino complained to Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport that the competition, “has a complicated formula, [is] held at a difficult time, [and] attract[s] little enthusiasm,” and while he has a point his proposed solution – to hold it in the second half of June, with 32 clubs – looks likely to create far more problems than it solves.

“Football nowadays isn’t just Europe and South America,” he told Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.

“The world has changed, so we have to find a Club World Cup which will be more interesting for the teams, as well as the fans around the world.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, by creating a tournament that is much more attractive, with more quality among participants, and more clubs. That will attract more sponsors and television companies from around the world.”

Despite the claim to be striving for a truly global tournament, the suggestion that it be held in June primarily suits European teams, with plenty of leagues elsewhere in the world – including, of course, Japan – still in play at that time of year.

The reference to sponsors and television rights acts as a further warning sign, and it is inevitable that the majority of participants in Infantino’s desired format would be invited not solely for their achievements on the pitch, but equally on account of their ability to secure lucrative contracts.

That would imply the aim is to create a ‘European Champions League Plus’ style competition, with all the regular heavyweights from England, Spain, Germany and so on supplemented by a few token slots reserved for the rest of the world. China, you’d imagine, would be granted a berth or two, with Alibaba E-Auto installed as Club World Cup title sponsor until 2022 and the country pouring vast sums of cash into the game.

The Club World Cup's rather awkward format

The proposal to hold the tournament in June may also be a ploy to divert some of the money from the increasingly lucrative European off-season period into FIFA’s coffers. Teams traverse the globe anyway at that time of year to play money-spinning friendly matches, and FIFA would much prefer the world’s biggest brands were doing so under their flag rather than in showpieces like the International Champions Cup.

Instead of watering the competition down and making it just another opportunity for the same old European teams to play each other again – albeit in front of excitable crowds keen to part with their cash for a glimpse of their favourite video-game and YouTube stars – why not pare it back and have it a simple six-team contest?

“There is something extraordinary whenever you can gather the champions from all six confederations,” Infantino writes in his welcome notes for this year’s competition. “These continental tournaments are just as rich and diverse in human stories as they are equal in significance and in the emotions they arouse.”

That is certainly true, and the opportunity to have the reigning champions from each of the six continents do battle is a unique, and in many ways old-fashioned, format.

Despite Kashima’s impressive efforts to make it to Sunday’s final, the reservation of a slot for a host representative is a slightly jarring aspect of the competition and one which should probably be done away with – although admittedly that would likely make it less appealing to local fans, broadcasters, and sponsors.

However, why not simply invite each of the continental champions and place them unseeded into two groups of three? The winners of each group then play each other in the final, while the respective second- and third-placed teams also square off against each other to determine the final rankings.

That would take no more time than the current format, provide a more even playing field than the present lopsided arrangement – which sees the Oceania champion spend around 10 days in town for one match, yet the European representative nip in and out to pick up the trophy after two games in a week – and also guarantee each participant three games against opposition they have never played before, and may never play again.

Of course, that would require some allowances on the part of the European participant – who can barely be bothered with the current format, so would take some convincing to fit another game in – and, more importantly, FIFA, who would make far less money from a simple sporting competition than the super league alternative they are pitching.

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