Why does the Club World Cup still struggle for relevance?

COLUMN: The Fifa Club World Cup is under way in Morocco with Real Madrid joining the party next week but why does the competition pass unnoticed around the world?

By Peter Staunton

It is a very simple concept. Take the winners of all of the world’s major continental club events and put them together once a year to decide the best club side on the planet.

This year’s Fifa Club World Cup has already commenced in Morocco. Moghreb Athletic de Tetouan lost to Auckland City in the qualification round to decide the last of the quarter-finalists. Auckland play ES Setif, the reigning African champions, for the right to take on Copa Libertadores winners San Lorenzo in the semi-finals.

On the other side of the draw, Western Sydney Wanderers play Mexico’s Cruz Azul, with the winner taking on overwhelming favourites Real Madrid in the other semi. A final between the best of Europe and their South American equivalents beckons.

Why, then, does the Fifa Club World Cup still struggle for its fair share of exposure?

While it is true that the world’s football leagues all run contrary to each other, the Club World Cup takes place at a time when the focus is very much on the European game. In fact, the first game of this year’s edition took place on the night that Manchester City were fighting for their Champions League lives against Roma. Fifa went up against Europe’s premier club competition with a game that was not exactly dripping in star quality. Tetouan and Auckland, incidentally, played out a 0-0 draw; not exactly the grand depart Fifa would have hoped for.

Real Madrid play in La Liga on Friday night in order to squeeze in their Club World Cup commitments before their mid-season break. Games are coming thick and fast for the other teams, too. Playing in the Club World Cup is less a privilege than an inconvenience in terms of scheduling. Much work is being done, currently, to improve the Fifa calendar and the Club World Cup could, perhaps, benefit from a move.

In late July and early August, plenty of Europe’s top teams are on the move for friendly matches around the world. By placing the Club World Cup at the start of the European season, when fewer league matches have commenced in earnest, then more might be tempted to watch it.

Furthermore, the money on offer for winning the Champions League in Europe is scarcely believable when placed in the context of other continental tournaments around the world. Real Madrid made €57.4 million from their winning campaign last season. San Lorenzo received about $5m (€4m) for winning the Copa Libertadores. ES Setif made about $1.5m for winning the Caf Champions League. Western Sydney Wanderers made about the same by defeating Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal over two legs.

The team finishing in fifth place in Morocco stands to make the same as the teams who win the Champions League in Asia and Africa. The €4m on offer for the winners is small beer to a club like Real Madrid. Fifa currently has cash reserves of about $1.4bn and could afford to lay out a bigger incentive for participants. More money trickling into the domestic game around the world would only be a good thing.

Due to the money on offer, the concentration of the world’s best talent is in Europe’s major leagues. Not one of the biggest, most recognisable non-European stars around the world play their club football on their home continent. It means that Europe has the pick of its own talent as well as whatever the wider world has to offer. Every other side at the Club World Cup is an underdog with respect to the might of the Champions League holders. That leads to a apathy on the part of supporters and the wider public in general.

Much of the appeal of the extinct Intercontinental Cup lay in the fact the South American teams were relatively unknown to European audiences. As such it gave an opportunity for fans in Europe to become acquainted with massive stars like Pele and Zico. The relative lack of TV exposure of bygone days was in stark contrast with today’s saturation when a European consumer can watch A-League in the morning, Africa Cup of Nations in the afternoon and Copa Libertadores at night.

There are few surprises let alone unheralded talent exploding on the scene at international cups such as this one. Moreover, generally, the top talents in Brazil and Argentina tended to remain at home for the majority of their careers. There was some consistency to the standard of the top teams and they were, once upon a time, equatable to the top teams in Europe. That is no longer true and it means that at the Club World Cup, it no longer represents a rivalry but a battle of giants and minnows.

There is no question of keeping players ‘at home’ for longer when money making opportunities loom large in Europe but perhaps if Fifa restricted the squads to players eligible to represent national teams on that continent then more of an even playing field could be achieved again.

Crucial to the tournament’s perception and ultimate exposure is the presence of the biggest teams in the world. That Real Madrid qualified is a massive boost for its reputation with the Spanish and European champions being the most popular team on the planet. Not only that, but they boast players of genuine worldwide appeal. Cristiano Ronaldo transcends borders, James Rodriguez is one of South America’s biggest stars, while Javier Hernandez and Keylor Navas carry star quality in the Concacaf region. In that sense, Real are Club World Cup marketer’s dream.

However, the Copa Libertadores final was contested by Paraguay’s Nacional and San Lorenzo of Argentina. Neither boast the popular appeal of, say, one of Brazil’s giants or Boca Juniors and River Plate. In that sense, this campaign has failed to properly capture the imagination of the wider South American audience. Real Madrid are expected to stroll it. There is nothing particularly exciting about San Lorenzo, Copa champions, whose most recognisable player is the 38-year-old Colombian defender Mario Yepes.

Similarly, the long-standing North African dominance of the African Champions League means that sub-Saharan Africa has been effectively locked out of the party. Save for TP Mazembe’s two titles in 2009 and 2010, clubs from Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria have maintained a stranglehold on the top African continental prize. There is no local interest in the games in west Africa, where plenty of the continent’s football fans live.

As it stands, the tournament will pass unnoticed in large parts of the football-watching world; most of Asia (due to the success of Australia’s Western Sydney), Brazil, and large swathes of Africa. That is a shame because there will be plenty of interesting players on show in Morocco. The idea is well-intended and, with the right husbandry, the tournament could grow into a global rival for the Champions League proper.