x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

World in motion

Fifa's attempts to crown global champions has never caught the imagination of the football world. Can Abu Dhabi help Sepp Blatter's dream?

Members of Uruguay's Nacional de Montevideo after winning the competition in 1988.
Members of Uruguay's Nacional de Montevideo after winning the competition in 1988.

It began life in 1960 as the Intercontinental Cup and has mutated through several different titles and formats before settling on its current existence, the Club World Cup (CWC), in 2005. But the changes of name and venue cannot disguise the fact it is a competition still searching for an identity and a purpose after almost half a century. Next week Manchester United travel to Japan aiming to add a second world crown to the title they won in 1999.

They will compete with continental club champions from Ecuador, Mexico, New Zealand and Egypt. The victory of the Japanese side Gamba Osaka in the Asian Champions League also allowed the team they beat in the final, Adelaide United, to qualify. For United, who toured the Far East earlier this year, it is a chance to renew acquaintances with their global fanbase. For the club's biggest star Cristiano Ronaldo, it is an opportunity to demonstrate why he has just won the famous Ballon d'Or.

For Ecuador's LDU Quito, it is a chance to strike another blow for the reputation of South American football at the expense of their richer European rivals. But the rest of the world, with the exception of South America, will barely follow events in Japan. In theory, an intercontinental club competition is a great idea. Back in 1960, the logical next step for the winners of both the European Cup (the precursor to the Champions League) and the South American Libertadores Cup was to meet to compete for the title of world club champions.

The list of former winners - who include Real Madrid, United, Boca Juniors, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Benfica - reads like a roll call of the most illustrious club names in the history of the game. In practice, the competition is now the bastard child of the Fifa president Sepp Blatter, a by-product of the complex political machinations that have helped him exert an iron grip on world football's governing body.

He has been determined to expand the event into a competition featuring teams from all corners of the globe, particularly regions such as Asia and Africa that have backed his presidency in the face of opposition from Europe. In his misguided attempt to create a rival to Uefa's Champions League, he has succeeded only in creating a hybrid monster that is neither fish nor fowl. The competition has come a long way since the early 1960s, when the respective European and South American club champions played each other in a two-legged home-and-away tie. In the 1970s, European clubs, angered at violence from the South American sides, simply refused to take part.

They were tempted back in 1980 by a switch to a one-off match on neutral ground in Tokyo, helped by generous appearance fees from sponsors Toyota. This century the competition has again changed format, with Fifa inviting the rest of the world on board. But the timing, in December, and the location, still Japan, have proved problematic. Last year, Fifa announced a switch to the Emirates for 2009 and 2010. For many, the move to Abu Dhabi cannot come quick enough, although the competition will revert to Japan in 2011 and 2012.

At least Blatter has recognised that Japan, though the saviour of the competition in 1980, is now part of the problem. For the South Americans, Africans and Asians, the December date makes perfect sense. The competition is the ideal climax to their seasons. For the Europeans, however, a mid-season trip to the other side of the world is little more than an inconvenience to their busy domestic schedules.

Competing for a title in the middle of the season has never made sense to European audiences. The 2006 tournament was a case in point. Barcelona were the overwhelming favourites, having earlier that year become one of the few teams to win both the European Champions League and their domestic league in the same season. But Ronaldinho, Deco et al flew into Japan as late as possible and left quickly after their defeat to Brazilian side Internacional of Porto Alegre in the final.

Internacional, by contrast, had prepared for months for their "Project Tokyo" (although the final is now played in Yokohama, venue for the 2002 World Cup final). Their detailed preparations included sending scouts to watch the African Champions League final to analyse their potential semi-final opponents. "It's an obsession for us," admits their president Fernando Carvalho. "The fact that all continents are now involved gives the competition extra glamour and value."

A year earlier Sao Paulo had returned to Brazil in triumph after winning their third world club title. Their bus took 10 hours to travel the relatively short distance from the airport to the stadium, so heavy were the crowds lining the streets to welcome them home. The world club title remains a source of fascination for South Americans. That feeling has intensified as the economics of the global game have forced the sale of increasing numbers of South American youngsters to European clubs over the past three decades.

"When I was a schoolboy at Gremio, there was a plaque on the wall that read: 'We are the world champions' [Gremio beat Hamburg 2-1 in Tokyo in 1983]," says Ronaldinho, one of the most famous Brazlians to ply his trade across the Atlantic from his homeland. "As a boy I always wanted to win all the titles Gremio have, so it's always been an ambition of mine to win it." Although the CWC is now under Fifa's control, it was originally the brainchild of Henri Delaunay, the French president of the European governing body Uefa and the man after whom the European Championship trophy is named.

Delaunay challenged the South American confederation Conmebol to a match to decide a world club champion. Conmebol responded by creating the Libertadores Cup, the South American Club Cup, to provide the continent's champion. The early years of the competition showed real promise. Real Madrid, with Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas fresh from their majestic demolition of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final, beat Penarol of Uruguay in the opening encounter.

A year later the Uruguayans returned to beat Eusebio's Benfica and in 1962, when Pele inspired Santos to victory, again over Benfica, the future of the Intercontinental Cup looked rosy. But a quartet of meetings in 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1970, all involving Argentinian sides, soured the competition. Celtic were the victims of strong-arm tactics from Independiente when they travelled to Buenos Aires in 1967.

Feelings were still running high over Argentina's bad-tempered quarter-final exit at the hands of England at the 1966 World Cup and the match descended into violent farce as Celtic's players were provoked into retaliation. Before the game had even kicked off, the Celtic - who are Scottish, not English - keeper Ronnie Simpson was struck by a missile thrown from the crowd while winger Jimmy Johnstone complained that he had to wash the spittle out of his hair at half-time.

In all, six players (four from Celtic) were sent off, although Celtic's Bertie Auld ignored the referee's orders and stayed on the pitch. It was the competition's bad luck that the team that represented South America for the next three years were also the side with the continent's most violent reputation: Estudiantes de la Plata. After Manchester United's 1968 encounter with them in Buenos Aires, which left Bobby Charlton needing stitches, George Best said: "Fifty-fifty balls I never bothered with. I just stood out of the way. It was ridiculous."

AC Milan fared no better in 1969. Estudiantes hatchet-man Aguirre Suarez broke the nose of Milan's Nestor Combin with a vicious elbow and winger Pierino Priati was brutally kicked in the back by the Estudiantes goalkeeper Alberto Poletti as he lay injured waiting treatment. The final straw for European sides came in 1970 when Estudiantes' Oscar Miguel Malbernat vented his frustration on Feyenoord's bespectacled goalscorer Joop Van Daele by grabbing the defender's glasses and trampling upon them.

The shattered specs are now proudly displayed in Feyenoord's museum, and the reputation of the World Club Cup never recovered. The following year Ajax refused to take part, with European Cup runners-up Panathinaikos stepping into the breach. The Dutch club again refused in 1973, as did Bayern Munich in 1974, Liverpool in 1977 and 1978 and Nottingham Forest in 1979. In 1975 the competition was not played at all.

Salvation came in the form of car manufacturers Toyota, who stepped in to take the show to Tokyo, where a one-off match gave the competition a new lease of life. Japanese crowds proved enthusiastic, regularly filling the 62,000-capacity National Stadium in the Japanese capita. Japan used the new annual event to push their bid to host the 2002 World Cup, while Toyota was happy with the profile gained by its sponsorship. A Toyota car was awarded to the man of the match.

That might not raise the heart rate of today's highly-paid European superstars, whose biggest decision every morning is whether to take the Porsche or the Bentley into training. But as recently as a decade ago it was a big deal. The World Club Cup looked to have found its niche, but trouble was brewing at Fifa's headquarters in Switzerland where Blatter was uneasy at the commercial success of Uefa's Champions League.

In 2000, Fifa organised its first World Cub Championship in Brazil, with teams from all six Fifa confederations. Plans for a regular event were shelved following the collapse of Fifa's marketing partner ISL in 2001. Eventually, Fifa subsumed the Toyota Cup into its own revised and renamed Club World Championship in 2005. The new format has not been without its problems. Unlike most tournaments, which tend to kick off with a high-profile match featuring the hosts or the holders, the CWC starts with a low-key encounter between the hosts' league holders and the Oceania champions.

The clumsy format continues with the two big guns, from Europe and South America, only entering at the semi-final stage. Oceania's representatives are clearly below the standard of the other teams, especially now that Australia has relocated to the Asian Confederation. This year's Oceania team, Waitakere United, could at best be described as semi-professional. But prize money totalling US$16.5 million (Dh60.6m) enables Fifa to offer even the lowest ranked of the seven teams some $500,000 in compensation, with the winners receiving $5m.

Fifa have struggled to sell tickets for games other than the final. In 2006, 23,000 turned up at the 57,000 capacity National stadium to watch Chonbuk Motors of South Korea beat New Zealand's Auckland City 3-0 in the fifth/sixth place play-off. When kick-offs are set at times to attract local fans, global TV audiences lose out. So Fifa is now taking the show on the road, to Abu Dhabi in 2009 and 2010. Australia also bid.

"Playing in the UAE will be beneficial from a marketing standpoint," Blatter says. "And the fact that they pledged $5m for grassroots development. One of the reason we could not consider Australia was because of time constraints." The move to Abu Dhabi next year could prove to be the salvation of the Club World Cup by attracting new TV audiences in Europe and the Middle East. Given the competition's long and chequered history, anything is possible.

Gavin Hamilton is the editor of World Soccer magazine.