JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Even while it was going on, it sometimes felt as if FIFA’s Club World Cup was battling for relevance.
Speaking to reporters just a few minutes after Manchester City’s win over Urawa Red Diamonds in the semifinal, captain Kyle Walker reflected on a year in which Pep Guardiola’s team reached the tournament in Jeddah courtesy of their success in the Champions League six months earlier.
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“There’s only a selected few players who can say they have won this competition, especially in Europe as you have to win the Champions League,” he said. “I can assure you it’s a lot harder to win than the Premier League. This is the icing on the cake.”
The inference from Walker was that — particularly for European teams — it’s much more difficult to qualify for the Club World Cup than it is to actually win it.
After City dominated Japan’s Red Diamonds in the semifinals, their manager Maciej Skorza referenced “the gap” between the top UEFA Champions League teams and the rest of the world.
Urawa, winners of the 2022 AFC Champions League, beat Club Leon of Mexico in their second-round tie, but couldn’t lay a glove on City. Guardiola was without Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, and chose to rest Julián Álvarez and Rúben Dias, but City still managed 25 shots on goal. Urawa had just two. The game finished 3-0, but it could quite easily have been five or six.
Fluminense, champions of South America, played out a tight semifinal with Al Ahly but were no match for City in the final, losing 4-0.
Featuring the best teams in the world, the Club World Cup, launched by FIFA in 2000, is supposed to be the pinnacle of club football, but it doesn’t always capture the imagination of the global audience in the same way as the (real) World Cup or even the Champions League. Even the TV deal isn’t particularly sought after, and the channel broadcasting the tournament in the UK only announced it had the rights on Dec. 11, a day before the opening game between Auckland City and Al-Ittihad.
Europe and South America, the sport’s traditional football hotbeds, have contested 13 of the last 19 finals, but we could conceivably have seen the last Club World Cup final between the champions of the two continents.
After a revamp by FIFA announced in Qatar last year, the next edition will be played over a month in the United States in summer 2025 and feature 32 teams. There will be representatives from the six confederations, but with 12 places going to UEFA, there’s more than a fair chance that the latter stages will be dominated by European teams. Man City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have already qualified, but with all due respect to Al-Hilal, Seattle Sounders, Flamengo and Monterrey — also guaranteed their places — there will not be much to stop the new Club World Cup format from turning into a replay of the Champions League knockouts.
It’s possible that a completely open draw with no seeding system could pit the European heavyweights together early on and allow an outsider to find a route to the last four or the even final, but there’s a reason 15 of the past 16 winners of the tournament have all come from UEFA. The last team to break the monopoly was Corinthians in 2012 against Chelsea — who started the season so poorly that manager Roberto Di Matteo was sacked just months after winning the Champions League. It says everything about the relative strength of club football in South America that Fluminense’s star player, 22-year-old midfielder Andre, is expected to move to Europe after the final against City.
Pep Guardiola did his part and took the competition seriously, making arrangements for the squad to fly to Saudi Arabia straight after their Premier League game against Crystal Palace on Saturday, rather than waiting until Monday morning. He even wore a suit for the final, despite the hot and humid temperatures in Jeddah, and picked his strongest available team for the final, bringing Alvarez and Dias back into the starting XI. However, there was never any question that Haaland or De Bruyne would be risked, even with the tag of world champions on the line.
Even if Guardiola didn’t want to admit it, the brutal truth is that games against Everton and Sheffield United this week are far more important and will take a far higher level of performance to win than the ones necessary to see off Urawa Red Diamonds and Fluminense. It was telling that even in Guardiola’s news conference immediately after lifting the trophy, one of the first questions was about how the success might help to boost a flagging campaign in the Premier League.
Even during its time to shine, the Club World Cup was left somewhat in the shadows.