One of the things about the World Cup I find most compelling is that, over the course of 90 minutes, opposing sides with little or no familiarity with one another will create a football match that converges varying playing styles and philosophies.
I realise I may be guilty over-romanticising this, and that uniformity of coaching methods and the fact that many elite players ply their trade in Europe regardless of which nation they represent combine to water down what used to be noticeably different variations of the world’s game, but I still like to think the World Cup does bring together elements of international character that can be noticed in dribbles, feints, tackles and tempo—that it’s still a special thing to see Japan play Cameroon, or Paraguay face Italy.
I also happen to find it fascinating when the template of international football is transferred to club level, as is best represented in the annual FIFA Club World Cup.
Admittedly, the tournament isn’t what it could be. Held each December and staged mostly in Japan, the Club World Cup is viewed predominantly as a nuisance in Europe where, whether you like it or not, attention and television numbers are vital for the growth and relevance of any truly international competition.
Next year it will move to Morocco, and while the change in time zone will be helpful the format will still require the champions of Europe and South America to play just a single match in order to qualify for the final.
We’re not going to solve the format problem today, but in my opinion a replication of the Confederations Cup setup would lend this tournament significantly more credibility, particularly if the reigning champions were permitted automatic entry to defend their title. In the 2012 instalment, which begins on Thursday, that club would be Barcelona, and their inclusion would provide the Club World Cup a much more palatable roster of eight participants rather than the current, and awkward, seven.
The Confederations Cup, which brings together the continental champions at international level and also includes the host country, is essentially the Club World Cup’s international equivalent. And to me it would make sense for the Club World Cup to mirror it as closely as possible. That means two groups of four sides with progression to a semifinal, and then, the final. It would also require the schedule to be two weeks in length rather than the current 10 days, which means it would have to be moved to a different slot in the calendar.
In that regard, one option that springs to mind is the mid-August FIFA date that is otherwise completely unnecessary. This season the Premier League only began after the matchday of international friendlies (England beat Italy 2-1), and the UEFA Champions League winner would be able to incorporate the Club World Cup into its pre-season training. The September FIFA date is another alternative, as would be a tournament played in late May, just as the major European leagues are breaking for the summer and ahead of the start of the Brazilian championship.
Of course, you’re never going to please everybody with the scheduling, but it’s worth pointing out that the World Cup, itself, happens to fall right in the middle of many North American, South American and Asian league calendars. If they want to, FIFA can make it work. And they should want to. In club football’s upwardly mobile organisational pyramid the Club World Cup should be right at the top—not off to the side somewhere.
Club World Cup playoff round: Host side Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who finished seven points clear atop the table to claim a second J.League title, will face Oceania champions Auckland City, who are making their fourth Club World Cup appearance. In 2009 in the United Arab Emirates, Auckland defeated hosts Al Ahli in the playoff round before losing 3-0 to CONCACAF winners Atlante in one of the quarterfinals.
Club World Cup quarterfinals: Egyptian giants Al Ahly won a record seventh African Champions League last month when they beat Tunisia’s Esperance over two legs. They await the winner of Sanfrecce—Auckland City. In the other quarterfinal Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai will face CONCACAF’s Monterrey, who are making their second consecutive appearance in the Club World Cup. In 2011 Monterrey went out on penalties at this stage to host side Kashiwa Reysol. The quarterfinal matches will be played on December 9.
Club World Cup semifinals: Copa Libertadores champions Corinthians will wait to see who progresses from the match between the playoff winner and Al-Ahly. Corinthians beat Vasco da Gama on penalties in 2000 to win the inaugural Club World Cup. On the other side of the draw UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea will contest their semifinal against either Ulsan Hyundai or Monterrey. The semifinals will be played on December 12 and 13, with the final on December 16.
Goal-line technology: The FIFA-approved goal-line technology systems will make their competitive debuts at the 2012 Club World Cup. Hawk-Eye, which uses cameras to judge whether a ball has crossed the line and is similar to the technology employed at many tennis tournaments, will be tested at Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium (where Chelsea will play their semifinal) while Goalref, which plants a chip in the ball, will get a try at Toyota Stadium (where Corinthians will play their semifinal).
Confederations Cup draw: The group stage draw for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup took place over the weekend. Brazil, Japan, Mexico and Italy went into Group A while Spain, Uruguay, Tahiti and the yet-to-be-determined African champion will make up Group B. Brazil will open the tournament against Japan in Brasilia on June 15 and Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana will host its first competitive match since being renovated when Mexico and Italy go head-to-head on June 16. The final will be played on June 30 at the Maracana.