x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Club World Cup is not yet in a class of its own

The inter-continental club tournament has a severe image problem in the world at large.

Mohamed Aboutrika, playing in his ninth Club World Cup match, would be the ideal ambassador for the competition if not for the fact the Al Ahly player is not well known in Europe. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA
Mohamed Aboutrika, playing in his ninth Club World Cup match, would be the ideal ambassador for the competition if not for the fact the Al Ahly player is not well known in Europe. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA

The Club World Cup has seldom seemed so orphaned. Its semi-finals begin tomorrow in Japan, to enthusiastic audiences there, to significant anticipation in South America, North Africa and in Mexico. But as a would-be celebration of the best of club football, it cannot help but feel, once again, a disjointed jamboree.

The concept of bringing together the champions from each continent, and constructing a global podium for club football has long been a tough sell in a cluttered calendar, especially to neutral audiences who have stubborn, established views on the natural hierarchy of the game, opinions that a few games played over two weeks in December will hardly challenge.

Fifa, who organises the event, has wrestled with this difficulty for more than a decade, and, as it trumpets the meeting, tomorrow in Toyota City, of Brazil's Corinthians, holders of South America's Copa Libertadores, and Egypt's Al Ahly, champions of Africa, and Thursday's contest in Yokohama between the Mexicans Monterrey, champions of the Concacaf confederation, and the Uefa Champions League holders Chelsea, they would be forgiven for wishing that a Lionel Messi, a Cristiano Ronaldo, or a Neymar were around to bring some star power to the supposed contest for best club in the world.

It is a rare thing that no players on the 23-man shortlist for the 2012 World Footballer of the Year, another Fifa enterprise, are involved in the Club World Cup.

This staging of the Club World Cup suffers an even sharper than usual problem of relevance. Fifa can blame Chelsea for some of that.

Chelsea are the first European champions to turn up for the gold medal in world club football having already been eliminated in the defence of their continental title, after they failed, a week ago, to go beyond the first phase of the European Champions League.

Chelsea are not alone in turning up in Japan after a bad run of form. They finished only sixth in the English Premier League last season, which is the same placing Corinthians have just achieved in Brazil's Serie A. Monterrey, meanwhile, finished seventh in the Apertura section of their domestic league; they were then knocked out at the quarter-finals of the Liguilla that follows the round-robin section of Mexico's complex league system.

As for Al Ahly, they carry wounds of a very distinct sort, in that their efforts to find momentum going into a Club World Cup they genuinely value have been undermined by events utterly outside their control: the Egyptian league has been suspended for almost 11 months following the tragedy in Port Said, where 72 spectators lost their lives at the fixture between Al Masri and Al Ahly.

Few neutrals would begrudge Al Ahly becoming the second African contestants to reach a Club World Cup final - TP Mazembe, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, memorably did so in Abu Dhabi two years ago - given their circumstances.

Al Ahly's triumph last month in the African Champions League came against the backdrop of a domestic league in abeyance and a country on edge.

"We won that cup under very difficult conditions, in terms of morale and logistics," the veteran playmaker Mohamed Aboutrika told reporters. "We wanted to dedicate the African title to the families of those who died" in Port Said. "Hopefully, we can do something special in Japan to make all the Egyptian people happy."

Aboutrika's goal against Sanfrecce Hiroshima, the Japanese club involved in the quarter-final stage as representatives of the host nation, would prove the decisive one in the 2-1 victory that earned Al Ahly their semi-final spot against Corinthians.

If you wanted to cite a footballer who gives the Club World Cup its appeal, it would be Aboutrika. Because he has spent his career mostly outside Europe, he has never, despite his dynamic part in Al Ahly and Egypt's dominance of their region for much of the past decade, featured prominently in Ballons d'Or/Fifa World Footballer of the Year candidate-lists.

He probably should have done. Aboutrika may establish a record by the end of this tournament for most games by any footballer at the Club World Cup. Tomorrow should be his ninth.

And if you want to find a coach as figurehead for the Club World Cup? Why not Rafa Benitez? Chelsea's interim manager chases his third final in the tournament, with a third different employer. When he ended up a silver-medallist with Liverpool in 2005, he departed the stage angrily bemoaning bad refereeing decisions.

When Benitez won the Club World Cup with Inter Milan in Abu Dhabi in 2010, his victory press conference was also volcanic, centring on his feverish demands to Inter's bosses that they recruit new players … or dismiss their coach.

Inter dismissed Benitez almost immediately. Chelsea seem likely to let him go, and quite soon. It will take more than winning the Club World Cup to change their minds.

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