x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Club World Cup: Half a century of fierce competition

Six international football champions face each other over 11 days in Abu Dhabi in a contest that has a rich, and occasionally bloody, history.

ABU DHABI // Forty-nine years ago, the champions of Europe met the champions of South America in a two-leg football final to decide which was the world's best club. Starting on December 9, six football sides from across the globe, each the winner of their respective continental championships, will square off over an 11-day tournament in Abu Dhabi.

The capital is hosting its first Fifa Club World Cup - the modern-day, knock-out incarnation of past competitions. It will also be the venue for the tournament next year. Next week, fans will see the latest version of a contest rich in history and legend, not all of it wholly positive. The Club World Cup has undergone many changes in its half-century of existence. For local fans, the most significant one will be when the current UAE Pro League champions, the Dubai club Al Ahli, join the other sides next week to become the country's first representative in the competition.

A festival of football is in store, with teams aiming to be crowned the best club on the planet. But for all the talk, anything other than a final between the current Champions League title holders Barcelona, from Spain, and the Argentine Copa Libertadores winners, Estudiantes, would be a shock. As the top sides from Europe and South America, the Latin rivals both receive byes to the semi-finals.

While Al Ahli must win three games to reach the final, Barcelona and Estudiantes require just one victory apiece. They are regarded as clear favourites and, looking at the history of the competition, it is not hard to see why. Since 2005, when the competition was relaunched in its current global format, four successive finals have failed to see any side break the Europe versus South America duopoly of finalists.

Historically, it is fitting. After all, the competition was formerly a showdown between football's two superpower continents. In the years before Fifa decided to include the world's other confederations, it was called the Intercontinental Cup. The match that started it all was in 1960, when Real Madrid - which had just won the first five European Cup tournaments - faced Uruguay's Penarol, the inaugural Copa Libertadores victors.

Madrid, with the legendary Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano in their ranks, drew 0-0 in Montevideo, before overwhelming Penarol 5-1 in front of 120,000 fans in the Spanish capital. Penarol and their notoriously noisy fans tasted glory the following year, beating Benfica, led by the Portuguese star Eusebio. It was at the third time of asking, however, after both teams won their home legs. Honours remained even between Europe and South America for the majority of the 1960s and 1970s, as contrasting football styles sparked numerous bruising encounters. None was more violent than the 1968 battles between Manchester United and Estudiantes.

After a 1-0 home win for the Argentine side, in which United had Nobby Stiles sent off, the return leg saw George Best brutally targeted by Jose Hugo Medina at Old Trafford. The pair scuffled towards the end and both were sent off. The match ended in a 1-1 draw and Estudiantes walked away triumphant. Just over three weeks ago, when the draw for the Fifa Club World Cup was held at the Emirates Palace hotel, the footballing destinies of Estudiantes and United were aligned once again.

The South American club's vice president, Gustavo Daniel Feysulaj, was in the emirate to witness the Red Devils legend Sir Bobby Charlton, who played in the infamous 1968 ties, conduct the draw on behalf of United, the reigning champions of the competition. Forty-one years after his team saw off United, Mr Feysulaj could not resist a less-than-subtle jibe. "It would be a great pleasure to be world c hampions again," he said. "Estudiantes has a real history, a fantastic history in this competition and Sir Bobby Charlton can explain this, he suffered a lot [in 1968]."

Throughout the trophy's history, Sir Bobby is not the only European to have lost out. South America's finest have played their part in spoiling their trans-Atlantic rivals' claims to bragging rights. In the 20 years that the Intercontinental Cup was played over two legs, southern hemisphere clubs trumped their northern counterparts 10 wins to eight. In the 24 years that a one-game final was fought out in Tokyo, from 1980 to 2004 - excluding 2000 - wins were shared at 12 apiece. European clubs also trail South Americans 3-2 in the modern Club World Cup format.

Mr Feysulaj said the animosity of previous decades had eroded. "We play in a different way, it's more dynamic and fast on the pitch," he said. "We still have the strength to win but there are different styles between each continent now." A final word should go to Fifa. Football's governing body has overseen the successful growth of the tournament, its only club-based inter-continental contest. Any club would consider "Champions of the World" a coveted title. But only one will become the holder of that honour on December 19.

They will be added to a long list of celebrated European and South American winners, and become part of the fabric of the contest's vibrant, sometimes violent, history. emegson@thenational.ae