x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

World's best will be bringing torrid history to Abu Dhabi

In December the Fifa Club World Cup enters a new era when Abu Dhabi debuts as the competition's host.

Manchester United celebrate after beating Liga de Quito in last year's Club World Cup final.
Manchester United celebrate after beating Liga de Quito in last year's Club World Cup final.

ABU DHABI // Over the years, its name has changed, but its exclusivity has remained. And in December, the Fifa Club World Cup enters a new era when Abu Dhabi debuts as the competition's host. In the past, it was known as the Club World Championship, and before that the Intercontinental Cup. Now a competition pitting seven confederation champions from around the globe in a tournament to decide the "champions of the world", it was previously a Europe versus South America play-off.

Indeed, ever since the Copa Libertadores was launched in 1960, South America's best have tangled in direct, annual competition with the winners of the European Cup - now the Champions League. And the Latin teams have more than played their part in spoiling their trans-Atlantic rivals' claims to international bragging rights. In the 20 years of the Intercontinental Cup's two-leg format, South American clubs trumped Europe's finest with 10 wins to eight. In the 24 years the one-leg final was fought out in Tokyo - from 1980 to 2004 - the honours were even at 12 wins apiece.

And although the 2000 Club World Cup trial did not take-off until 2004, European clubs trail their South American contemporaries 3-2 in the modern format. The Intercontinental Cup was born when Real Madrid and Uruguay's Penarol contested the inaugural edition in 1960. The Spanish giants kept it tight on a terrible Montevideo pitch to come away with a 0-0 draw, In the Bernabéu return, Ferenc Puskas (two) and Alfredo Di Stefano gave Real a 3-0 half-time lead. Some 120,000 Madrid fans - and an estimated television audience of 150 million - saw Herrera and Gento hammer home two more goals for Real before Spencer scored a late consolation goal for the visitors.

Penarol got their revenge the following year, downing a Eusebio-led Benfica in a third play-off match. Away goals were non-existent in the first two encounters, with both teams winning their home games - Penarol 5-0 and Benfica 1-0. The Uruguayans hosted the decider, and won 2-1. Honours were even. And so they stayed for the majority of the 1960s and 1970s as contrasting football styles sparked countless bruising encounters.

None was more violent than Manchester United and Estudiantes' 1968 battles. After a 1-0 home win for the Argentine side, in which United had Nobby Stiles sent off, Old Trafford hosted the return leg. George Best was brutally targeted by José Hugo Medina throughout the game, and a scuffle broke out between them towards the end. Both players were sent off, the match ended in a 1-1 draw and Estudiantes walked away triumphant.

Outrageous tackles and infamous on-pitch recriminations have made the notorious clashes are too plentiful to list. "Champions of the World" is, after all, a much-coveted title. The referee rarely oversees a dull script, and cards, of both variety, bring constant colour to games already rich in tapestry. Whether it's black and white footage of Puskas, Ruben Sune, Ferenc, Best and Luis Cubilla, or colour images of recent stars such as Zidane, Romario, Chilavert, Baresi and Van Basten, the enduring fantasy of the competition - and its prize - lingers.

Manchester United won't be in Abu Dhabi to defend the world title they won in Japan last year. But the club who beat them in the Champions League final, Barcelona, with Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Henry in their ranks, will be keen to even Europe's score on their behalf against Estudiantes, the Copa Libertadores winners. emegson@thenational.ae