Twenty years ago, eight football teams from six continental confederations converged in Brazil for the inaugural Fifa Club World Championship. The line-up included two European heavyweights: Manchester United, winners of the 1998-99 Uefa Champions League, and Real Madrid, who had won the 1998 Intercontinental Cup. Neither made it to the final in 2000. Instead, it was two Brazilian clubs, Corinthians and Vasco da Gama, that met at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, with the former emerging victorious 4-3 on penalties. Corinthians’ win remains the best result for a host nation at the tournament, which was relaunched as the Fifa Club World Cup in 2006.
This is what the Club World Cup offers—a chance for teams to show they can be the best in the world. This is where Neymar met Lionel Messi in a showdown clash in 2011, before the two became teammates at FC Barcelona. This is where Moroccan club Raja Club Athletic, from Casablanca, took third place in 2013. They lost to Bayern Munich in the final, but only after beating an Atlético Mineiro side that featured Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho in the semis. As the 2020 edition of the tournament, delayed by the covid-19 pandemic, kicks off on 4 February, it’s bound to come up with its own set of surprises. “At European Championships, or for us in the Champions League, you always play European teams. Coming up against South American, Asian or African sides is always a little bit different in terms of the mentality of your opponents,” Bayern Munich coach Hans-Dieter Flick told Fifa.com recently.
Can Bayern make it six?
Only one team has managed to pick up six domestic and international titles in one season: Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona, in 2009. Bayern Munich, the reigning European champions, will be hoping to match the record. Despite their recent stumble in German cup competitions, Bayern are still the team to beat in club football. Their campaign starts on 8 February, facing off either against Qatari club Al-Duhail SC or Egypt’s Al Ahly SC in the semi-final. Flick’s squad of proven winners already has four names familiar with this competition: Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defenders David Alaba, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Müller won the trophy under Guardiola in 2013. An upset is always on the cards, but Flick will be looking to add a sixth trophy to cap off Bayern’s stellar 2019-20 season.
The tournament, held at the half-way point of other domestic seasons, has always been criticised for its timing and the exhausting travel it involves for some teams. But European coaches have defended it, now and in the past. Sir Alex Ferguson, who won the competition with Manchester United in 2008, and Guardiola, who holds the record of winning the Club World Cup three times as a manager, described it as “prestigious”. Flick said everyone he had spoken to described it as a “wonderful competition”—adding that he himself was looking forward to what the tournament has to offer and “maybe picking up some fresh ideas”.
For clubs like Al-Duhail and Mexican team Tigres UANL, this will be a first taste of competition at the highest level. A great opportunity to test mettle—and learn from some of the best.
This edition will be important for other reasons too. It will be the first international tournament to test out the process of allowing a concussion substitute. And it may help settle the debate on whether or not a player should continue to play after a head injury.
It’s also going to be a litmus test for Qatar, whose ability and suitability to host the 2022 World Cup has always been in doubt: from the country’s human rights record to corruption allegations, to the tournament being played in November-December to avoid the searing summer temperature and the duration being reduced to 28 days for 64 matches. The pandemic has only complicated matters.