The Club World Cup kicks off today in Qatar live on BBC. Mexican side Tigres face the Koreans, Ulsan Hyundai, before Egyptian side Al-Ahly face hosts Al-Duhail. The competition that drags a European giant away from their domestic league at a crucial time and at the very least greatly disrupts a season. On the off chance that an English side is representing Europe it is far more disruptive as they don’t have a winter break unlike most other major European leagues. A case in point of this was last season’s Club World Cup where Liverpool were essentially forced to give up their challenge for the Carabao Cup, having to play a youth team because the first team was in Qatar for the tournament.
This is at least the understanding of the Club World Cup that is held in Europe, but travel outside of the continent and a very different vision is held of the tournament. For clubs from non-UEFA federations, the Club World Cup is both a wonderful occasion and welcome challenge. It is a chance to test themselves against the very best in the world and for their federations, a chance to demonstrate how strong their competitions are.
The competition can and should be a chance for the European audience to learn about just how truly global the game is. The Club World Cup is an opportunity to challenge European hegemony of football and expand our understanding and appreciation of the global game.
A chance to actually watch football outside of Europe
The Club World Cup is the most accessible competition in breaking down the barriers that European viewers have with the rest of the world. It is an opportunity to have a glimpse of other footballing styles and cultures. One simply needs to be following the hype of Al-Ahly fans watching their players and club representatives arriving in Doha to see that each club will bring a different colourful footballing culture to the competition.
British viewers have been fortunate over the last couple years to have access to the Copa Libertadores semi-finals and finals which has grown interest in the South American game. Those who watched the final this year will have been treated to a South American classic. A cagey match, full of bite before a grandstand finish where a 98th minute winner was scored by Palmeiras after the Santos manager was sent off.
It was a final not too dissimilar to Bayern’s own triumph when two teams cancelled out each other and the margins for victory were remarkably narrow. However, the other continental finals that were not on British TV were far better in terms of action and quality. Whether it was the come back from Tigres to deny LAFC, Junior Negrao’s double penalty that won the ACL for an unfancied Ulsan Hyundai, or the wonder goals scored both by Zamalek and Al-Ahly in Egypt, there was a host of quality football and finals that were far more exciting than Bayern’s victory over PSG. The Club World Cup is the window into which Euro-centric supporters can begin to broaden their horizons.
The Club World Cup is the one opportunity for a European audience to actually watch live football featuring sides beyond their own experience. It showcases the reality that football not only exists outside of Europe, but it is thriving and at a size far larger than known or acknowledged by European viewers.
A window into a different footballing worlds
Not only do each of the teams in the Club World Cup bring differing footballing success and styles to the table. They all are completely unique culturally and represent football cultures completely different from UEFA.
Tigres come from a league that is completely different from any others competing in the Club World Cup. Not only is Liga MX far more competitive than the Premier League or most European leagues (they have had seven different champions in the last ten competitions), it runs on the Latin American football system of having two competitions within a season, the Apertura and Clausera which are contested either side of the turn of the year.
Due to the size of the continent, the Asian Champions League is broken into two brackets of East and West before the winners of the two play together in the final. Al-Ahly come into the Club World Cup having won their record ninth title after winning the first ever African final with two sides from the same country.
The club, who’s following spans North Africa and the Middle East and are bigger than most UEFA Champions League clubs and one of the most culturally influential clubs in African football. They date back to 1907, only seven years younger than Bayern Munich, and have a history more colourful than almost any other in world football.
The Copa Libertadores is arguably the most passionately followed footballing competition in the world. The importance of the competition can not be understated as was demonstrated in last year’s final when the final had to be moved to Madrid from Buenos Aires because of fears of fan violence.
Deco, one of only 16 players to of won the UEFA Champions League with two different clubs and played nationally for Portugal, famously said that he would exchange both titles for a Copa Liberatores win.
The clubs, competitions and federations that are present at the Club World Cup all bring completely different football cultures to the table. Each one has something that the others do not, and the Club World Cup is the stage at which they can all briefly be showcased. The competition gives a European audience to take that step that they expect the rest of the world to take, to look beyond your own country and continent for football that is thrilling full of quality.
Building on the Club World Cup’s success
FIFA and the Club World Cup have come under criticism by viewers in Europe for expanding future tournaments. Clubs have complained that it adds unnecessary games to a fixture list that is already too full and invariably runs players into the ground. While these criticisms are fair, players around the world do not need to play more games, particularly in the summer, the move to grow the tournament is a positive one.
FIFA, for all its flaws, is acknowledging the fact that having a sport that is disproportionately focusing on Europe is not good for the sport. Growing the sport globally will benefit everyone and make both the quality of the sport and the spectacle only grow as well.
The second thing that it points to, is the understanding that the quality of football is growing around the rest of the world. Al-Duhail, the hosts of the Club World Cup (as champions of Qatar), represent the growth of the game in the Middle East. They are a team, less than 20 years old, but have had remarkable investment and already posses a strong squad including former Bayern Munich defender Mehdi Benatia, and are managed by Sabri Lamouchi, formerly of Nottingham Forest.
While European clubs are the biggest spenders and have the most to invest in their clubs, long gone are the days where other federations and clubs have no spending power of their own. All of the other federations involved in the Club World Cup are now arguably in their strongest positions ever in terms of financial and footballing power.
Much of the football around the world is simply not accessible to European viewers at the moment due to broadcasting rights, but that is changing. The BBC is showing all of the matches in the Club World Cup again after broadcasting the Copa Libertadores final last weekend. When football resumed in Korea following the outbreak of COVID-19, European broadcasters were queuing up to sign deals to show the games. Not only that, but there are hundreds of football leagues around the world that are free to watch from Europe as they live stream on various platforms, fans simply need to look for them.
There is a growing understanding that football outside of Europe is relevant and crying out for a wider audience beyond their own federations. The question is will football fans in the UK and Europe continue to ignore and not give credit to the rest of the world, or use the Club World Cup as a platform to embrace and grow the game globally.