Gianni Infantino was present for Wednesday’s Club World Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Al-Hilal. Given how the FIFA president has made transforming the much-maligned and ill-defined competition one of his personal targets, this wasn’t so surprising. Neither was the sight of swathes of empty seats around the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
After two years of the tournament being hosted by Qatar, this is the first time since that the Club World Cup has returned to the United Arab Emirates since 2018. Chelsea, as UEFA’s representatives, are the headline act with the 2020/21 Champions League winners one of the most eye-catching soccer teams around. Empty seats, however, hinted at a sense of apathy from the locals.
The Club World Cup has long struggled to define itself as a competition. What was once the Intercontinental Cup, a straight shootout between the European Cup winners and Copa Libertadores winner, was expanded at the start of the 21st century to involve the club champions of every confederation.
There might be some merit in the concept of a competition that pits the best clubs from around the world against each other, but the Club World Cup feels like an afterthought. Squeezed into the middle of the season, it is frequently seen as an inconvenience, particularly by European clubs who have to play so many matches at this time of year.
Congestion in the soccer schedule will be aggravated further if Infantino gets his way, with the FIFA president still intent on expanding the Club World Cup to include 24 teams. This change was originally planned to take place from 2021 only for the global Covid-19 pandemic to put everything on ice.
Now, it’s not quite so clear what FIFA’s immediate plans for the Club World Cup are, although recent comments by Infantino suggest he is still determined to expand the competition and shift it to the summer months when clubs don’t have so many other fixtures and engagements to contend with.
Of course, there is widespread suspicion that FIFA are using the Club World Cup as a weapon in their power struggle with UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) which has already called for a boycott of any expanded tournament. This power struggle is also a factor in FIFA’s recent proposals to make the World Cup a biennial event.
A breaking point is coming at the elite level of the sport. More and more is being asked of the best teams and the best players with very little regard for their physical or even mental wellbeing. Players’ off-seasons are getting shorter while competitions and tournaments are getting bigger. At some point, soccer won’t be able to absorb any more expansion.
For non-UEFA confederations, the Club World Cup presents a rare opportunity to take on some of the best teams and players in the sport. There is plenty of quality in other confederations, particularly CONMEBOL. The Copa Libertadores is one of the most storied tournaments in club soccer, but the pool isn’t as deep as it is in Europe.
However, the Club World Cup doesn’t exactly offer non-European clubs much opportunity to improve. How much can a team truly improve in a competition when they have only two or three fixtures to play? This is where an expanded Club World Cup might actually have some worth – it could establish a bridge between UEFA, where so much of the sport’s resources are centralised, and the rest of the soccer world.
It’s not that the Club World Cup couldn’t have a purpose in the future, it’s that the tournament in its current form is stuck somewhere between what it once was as the Intercontinental Cup and what it wants to be. And for the Club World Cup to be what it wants to be something else will have to give in the soccer calendar and nobody in the sport is currently willing to give up anything.
Chelsea face a tricky test against Palmeiras on Saturday in what could be a captivating contest between two quality teams. Having come this far, having traveled all the way to the UAE mid-season, both sides will want to get their hands on the Club World Cup. What the trophy itself actually symbolises isn’t so clear.