x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Club World Cup: Victory is a fairy tale too far for Egypt's Al Ahly

The dream of becoming world club winners was too much, but the African champions won respect from almost all who watched, despite being in Japan to make up the numbers, writes Ali Khaled.

Al Ahly have had a difficult year with 74 supporters losing their lives in February's Port Said stadium disaster. Khaled Desouki / AFP
Al Ahly have had a difficult year with 74 supporters losing their lives in February's Port Said stadium disaster. Khaled Desouki / AFP

This was not what we've come to expect from Brazilian footballers. And by the looks of it, it was not what the Brazilian footballers were expecting either.

Yesterday, in the freezing temperatures of Tokyo, it was the African Champions Al Ahly, all fancy flicks and possession football, who toyed with the South American champions Corinthians. At the final whistle, the reactions of the exhausted Brazilians to their fortunate 1-0 win betrayed their feelings. Relief, not ecstasy.

The Egyptians, yet again driven on by their brilliant substitute, the talismanic Mohamed Aboutrika, had almost spoilt the party. Had they not read the script?

Around 30,000 Brazilians had made the trip to Japan for the first of the 2012 Fifa Club World Cup semi-finals. From Egypt, less than 200.

But for Al Ahly, this was about more than winning a football match. Having seen 74 Ahlawy tragically lose their lives in February's Port Said stadium disaster, the club had somehow picked itself up and found the will to carry on.

With the Egyptian league suspended, Al Ahly overcame Tunisia's Esperance to win the CAF Champions League. And now, what better way to honour their dead than by becoming world champions.

Fairy-tale endings in football, however, are very rare. And sadly, it is not just the Brazilians that would have been celebrating last night.

Fifa, its sponsors and television broadcasters around the world would have heaved a sigh of relief that Al Ahly failed to turn the match around. And you don't need to be a marketing expert to guess which of Chelsea or Monterrey they will be cheering on in today's second semi-final. South America against Europe is the showdown they all want to see.

No matter that Al Ahly would have been worthy finalists, most football fans too would have little interest in anything other than a Corinthians v Chelsea final. Shamefully, many in the media have similar attitudes.

In the Al Jazeera studios, the embarrassingly condescending figure of Trevor Francis, the former England footballer, who was a pundit for the game, could barely get himself to praise Al Ahly's stirring second-half performance, instead blaming Corinthians's poor showing on insufficient time to recover from their travels.

That he chose to credit the team that, in essence, had their feet up, rather than the one that had to travel half way around the world and play an extra match. It tells you all you need to know about the lack of respect that pundits, like football authorities, continue to show to less established nations.

This should come as no surprise, particularly when it comes to this competition.

From 1960 to 1980, the Intercontinental Cup was decided over two legs between South America's Copa Libertadores holders and the winners of the European Cup (Uefa Champions League from 1993).

That changed between 1981 and 2004, with a one-off final taking place in Japan. Fifa experimented with the first World Club Championship in Brazil in 2000, and that format returned for good from 2005, the tournament held in Japan every year except 2009 and 2010, when it took place in Abu Dhabi.

In all that time, only one club from outside South America or Europe, TP Mazembe from the Congo in 2010, have contested a final.

It is indisputable that the standard of football in South America and Europe is far higher than the rest of the world. It is also indisputable that despite its organisational nod to egalitarianism, Fifa continues favour the big two.

Part of the reason that the Club World Cup lacks the popularity of continental titles is that it masquerades as a competitive event, when in reality it is nothing of the sort. The empty stadiums for the early matches prove as much.

The four other continental champions, as well as the host nation club (Sanfrecce Hiroshima this year) are simply there to make up the numbers, and not in any metaphorical sense.

Surely, having taken the decision to hold this (unpopular) tournament in the first place, a more credible format can be found than the existing one which gives the South American and European champions a bye into the semi-finals.

Indeed, in Europe, although not in South America, the tournament is still seen as an inconvenience more than anything else.

Still, Fifa will care very little as long as the dollars keep rolling in. Empty stadiums or not.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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