FIFA maintains a common design across all of its trophies: A globe in the style of a soccer ball is the dominant centerpiece. Its depiction illustrates — however ham-handedly — the universal resonance of soccer, and perhaps only the iconic World Cup trophy is as impressive as the prize handed to the winners of the Club World Cup. But despite all of that shimmering symbolism, club soccer’s world championship can’t escape irrelevance.
The tournament’s name suggests it should be something of a big deal. A World Cup — but for the club teams who play together near year-round. With the sport’s six continental champions pitted against each other in a weeklong annual tournament, the concept is simple enough. This year’s participants are Auckland City of New Zealand, Cruz Azul of Mexico, ES Sétif of Algeria, Moghreb Tétouan of Morocco, San Lorenzo of Argentina, Western Sydney Wanderers of Australia, and of course Real Madrid of Spain. And yet, Saturday’s final between San Lorenzo and Madrid will be regarded as little more than a footnote in the global soccer season.
Despite including participants from every continent, the Club World Cup has served only to amplify soccer’s parochial and imbalanced condition. For starters, the tournament gives its biggest and best teams — the European and South American champions — a bye to the semifinal stage. Had Auckland City made Saturday’s final, they would have played three games, compared with Real Madrid’s one. In fact, by the time Real Madrid played their first match, three of the tournament’s seven teams had already been eliminated. Even if the competition does carry marginally more repute for South American teams and sides outside of the UEFA zone, who otherwise wouldn’t have a competitive shot at a top-level Champions League outfit, European teams are always expected to win, and doing so barely registers as a laudable achievement.
Where there should be a certain romance to the Club World Cup, the manufactured feeling of the event prevents that from happening, too. With a different result in Wednesday’s semifinal, Cristiano Ronaldo would have faced Darren White of Auckland City, a man who sells kitchens for a living, in the competition’s final. But even if such a clash had transpired, the forced context in which the tournament is played would have robbed it of any charm, like a Charlie Chaplin film played on an Imax screen.
But maybe the indifference with which the Club World Cup is regarded is reflective of a wider pattern?
Mohamed Mahmoud/Anadolu Agency
The Champions League is of course the the glittering pinnacle of the sport’s club game, with the tournament’s star-ball emblem a badge of honor for Europe’s elite, but nearly every other club competition is floundering. Look at the Europa League, for instance, which has become an albatross on whichever clubs participate in it. Or the English F.A. and League cups. The Copa Libertadores is still a captivating exhibition of the South American game, but it, too, has suffered a similar fate, with crowd numbers and television viewership on the wane.
Club soccer boasts a rich and varied history of compelling competitions, yet there is scant sign of that interest in its current scape. Even the Intertoto Cup — the much-maligned, early-season, pan-European tournament that was abolished in 2008 — had a unique appeal, although the format that produced three winners every year hardly helped its mainstream appeal.
UEFA has attempted to rescue the Europa League by offering a place in the following season’s Champions League as an incentive for the winners. But rather than giving the competition pertinence, it has only underlined its peripherality. By doing so, UEFA has almost admitted that the Europa League cannot be regarded as a credible competition in its own right. Names like Torino, Partizan Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, Steaua Bucuresti, and St. Etienne are synonymous with an age in which continental competition was broadcast in sepia and compelled with a notion of the unknown. These are the sort of clubs that now contest the Europa League, yet the competition feels like an indictment of the modern game rather than a welcome throwback to a time before it.
So why are these club competitions struggling for traction? Many will point to poor scheduling, as in the instance of the Europa League, which plays its games the day after the Champions League, like some kind of administrative afterthought. Others will claim that in a globalized marketplace dominated by international super-brands like the Premier League and the Bundesliga, there is simply no space for competing club competitions, including the Club World Cup. If it’s not a league championship or the Champions League, then not many people care.
FIFA is the only thing keeping the Club World Cup alive. Even the championship’s current host nation, Morocco, is doing so by default. The tournament has now been played in Marrakech for two years, after Iran, South Africa, and the UAE — hosts in 2009 and 2010 — withdrew their bids to host the event, leaving the North African nation as the only remaining option. That is perhaps the starkest illustration of how the Club World Cup is now regarded. Not even a country that paid more than $1.2 billion to construct a Formula One track that hosts one race a year and revels in collecting sparkling, yet hollow, sporting events wants to be burdened with FIFA’s bastard child. So, regardless of who wins on Saturday — hint: it’ll probably be the team with Cristiano Ronaldo — the winner won’t be able to claim much more than an empty distinction, no matter how shiny that trophy looks.
Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven) is a freelance soccer writer. You can read his work at the New York Times, the Guardian, and Vice, among other places.