x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Club everyone wants to join

Manchester United, holders of the Club World Cup, would love to be playing in Abu Dhabi for the first time, but Barcelona were worthy winners in May's Champions League final.

The Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand, centre, lifts the Club World Cup in Japan in 2008.
The Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand, centre, lifts the Club World Cup in Japan in 2008.

Manchester United, holders of the Club World Cup, would love to be playing in Abu Dhabi for the first time, but Barcelona were worthy winners in May's Champions League final. "We would have loved to defend the title in Abu Dhabi," says United midfielder Darren Fletcher, "but it's the Champions League winners and not the holders who represent Europe in the competition. We'll have to win the Champions League in Madrid [in May] and play in Abu Dhabi next year."

Fletcher enjoyed the tournament last year, though he remained diplomatic with the media. "Mr Fletcher," asked one Japanese journalist. "How do you intend to cope with the magical talent of [Gamba Osaka's Yasuhito] Endo?" As Fletcher thought up a safe answer, the silence was broken with a shout of: "Kick him." It was Paddy Crerand, a United player from the 1960s. Crerand was part of the United media pack, and was not afraid to ruffle feathers, especially when he teased Cristiano Ronaldo, shouting: "Cristiano, I'm from Real Madrid TV." The winger saw the funny side.

"The travel was hard," adds Fletcher, "but we took the tournament seriously. It has become an important competition." There were concerns United's exertions in Japan would be a heavy burden on their English Premier League challenge and the 14-hour flight to Tokyo saw all the players suffer from jet lag. United's management played down the problem, but the players slept fitfully. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were spotted wandering the corridors of their hotel in Yokohama at 4am, unable to sleep. Still, United won the competition and the US$5 million (Dh18.36m) prize money by playing their strongest side against Gamba Osaka and the South American champions Liga de Quito in the Yokohama final.

As for the cost to United's domestic campaign - the team hit the top of the league for the first time in their first game after Japan and stayed there to win the league for a third successive year. So much for the critics who ridiculed the tournament, just as they had done in 2000 when Real Madrid and United were the European representatives in Rio de Janeiro. The South American and European Champions had met in the Intercontinental Cup since 1960 and continued to do so until 2004, seldom without controversy.

United's ties against Estudiantes, who will be in Abu Dhabi, were marred by fighting in 1968. Similarly Celtic and Racing Club of Argentina had, a year previously, become embroiled in a violent three-game fracas. It was worse two years later when several Estudiantes players were suspended for their barbaric behaviour against Milan. Concern for their players and a lack of financial incentive saw European champions Liverpool decline to take part in 1977 and 1978, while there were no games in 1975 and 1978 at all.

Low crowds and poor public relations scarred the image of the competition so badly it was not restored until 2005 when Japan was chosen to stage a tournament featuring Liverpool and Sao Paulo. It was a wise decision. Japanese fans are wealthy and the demand to see some of the biggest teams in the world is high. By playing two games in succession in the same stadium, the organisers avoided embarrassingly low attendances. The respectable average crowd of 37,351 in 2005 saw the tournament remain in Japan and gates increased every year. Last year's tournament average was 44,344.

The teams take it seriously too. The tournament is highly regarded in South America: the prestige of beating the European champions is enhanced by its other function as a shop window for players. The economics also make sense. Last year's finalists Liga de Quito from Ecuador may have beaten South America's best sides on the way to winning the Copa Liberatadores, but the average salary of their players was $1,000 a week - a hundredth of the United average.

The US$4m prize money for finishing runners up goes a long way in Ecuadorian football and several of their players admitted that they were "living the dream" just competing in the tournament. It is 3-2 to the South Americans in their battle with European teams since the competition was relaunched. Sao Paulo beat Liverpool in 2005 and another Brazilian side, Internacional, defeated Barcelona in 2006.

Giant billboards celebrating that victory are still prominent in their home city of Porto Alegre. Both Barca and Estudiantes will be aiming to assert their continent's superiority - though the other competing sides from around the globe will try to trip the clear favourites. amitten@thenational.ae