World Club Cup – Time you took notice?

by Charles Pulling

fifa-club-world-cup-2013-logoIt has been over a decade since the tournament made its debut in Brazil, yet still the FIFA World Club Cup still fails to draw the attention it deserves. It is, at its core, a wonderfully elegant competition format – simply the winners from each of the confederation’s premier club competitions (plus a club from the host country, the domestic champions) – pitted in a straight knock-out format. Yet, in Europe at least, something seems to fail to ignite levels of interest anywhere near comparable with the UEFA’s two premier competitions.

Something could be said for FIFA’s management of the competition. Of the 10 editions of the tournament none have taken place on European soil whereas Japan has hosted seven times. No doubt this is a product of FIFA’s wish to ‘promote’ the game in potentially lucrative markets (The 2009/10 editions took place in the United Arab Emirates) and has added to the false perception that the tournament is little more than some sort of ‘soft-core’ football tournament, an exhibition you’d imagine to see on stage at Disney World. Another question could be raised with FIFA’s decision to hold the tournament in December, smack in the middle of most European leagues season’s.

Yet despite some obvious finessing needed the tournament is, at its heart and soul, an excellent tournament – filled with potential to provide some excellent footballing spectacle. And this year’s edition, held for the 1st time on African soil, is no different.

You may be aware that the tournament is reaching its completion, but then again frankly you’d be forgiven if not given the almost total lack of coverage its been afforded. So far has seen some terrific football and equally compelling stories behind the teams competing.

The host entry Raja Casablanca, whom appeared in the inaugural tournament in 2000, weren’t expected to make hard work of their first round opponents 2012/13 OFC Champions League champions Auckland FC. Yet the Moroccans were pushed to the line by the New Zealanders in thrilling encounter in Agadir, with a goal in the 2nd minute of stoppage time needed to after both teams had conceded.

That win set up an encounter with North American champions Monterey of Mexico. La Pandilla have experienced an unprecedented level of success in recent seasons having won the CONCACAF Champions League 3 years on the bounce. Yet that continental domination has seemingly taught them little as they conceded in extra-time after pulling level with the Moroccans mid-way through the second half, sending the understandably partisan 45,000 crowd into raptures.

As if to upstage Raja’s marauding through the tournament, the other quarter-final provided the an early shock for the tournament as Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande F.C defeated Egypt’s Al-Ahly by two goals to nil. The African Champions, who won the continent’s version of the Champions League despite having no domestic league to play in, were made to rue early misses as the Asian Champions, coached by Marcelo Lippi, scored two very South American goals. Firstly Brazillian forward Elkeson slotted home and then Argentinian Conca - who is due to re-join Fuminese after a controversial time in China – took advantage of a mistake from the goalkeeper to put the tie beyond doubt. And whilst Guangzhou’s success does share sensibilities with a Beneton ad campaign special praise should be reserved for Chinese holding midfielder Zheng Zhi who some may remember from a short spell at Celtic.

The Semi-Final stages saw the introduction of the two so-caled ‘big guns’ – European Champions Bayern Munich and 2013 Copa Libertadores winners Athlético Minerio. This is where some ‘mainstream’ media pricked up their ears with interest – perhaps this is atleast partially understandable, yet one can’t help feel that the lack of coverage for the opening stages has denied fans the chance to drink in the atmosphere.

For Bayern Munich the game against Guangzhou took on extra significance as it marked the German club’s debut in this competition in its current format. Having purged the certain memories with a UEFA super-cup revenge against Chelsea, Pep Guardiola will be keen to add a second piece of silverware to his burgeoning dynasty. And Pep has a history of taking the Club World Cup seriously, having won the tournament twice with Barcelona – including in 2009 on the way to an unprecedented sextuple of silverware.

Marcelo Lippi’s tactical nous led to some suggestions before the first semi-final of a tight affair. Yet those romantics were dealt a healthy dose of reality in Agadir as the German side dominated from the get-go.  In fact the Asian champions did not register a single shot on target throughout the game. Conversely the well-drilled Guangzhou defence, which had the wily Italian’s fingerprints all over it, frustrated Bayern.

Whilst bad luck blighted some of the German side’s finishing there was no doubt that they would get their breakthrough and that inevitably came five minutes before half-time when Ribery controlled a volley smartly for his 14th goal of the season. Mario Mandzukic doubled Munich’s advantage with a header as the 1st half entered its death-throes. There were surely some onlookers, unperturbed by Munich’s dominance, that wondered whether Marcelo Lippi’s team talk may inspire his charges into a fight-back, yet the 2nd half was only two minutes old when Götze’s exquisite control and shot put the tie beyond even the most unreasonable of doubt.

The following evening in Marrakesh the 2nd semi-final provided the talking point of this years tournament. The Brazilians have not enjoy the same level of success in this seasons Brasileirão as the 2nd place finish last season that pre-ceded their continental triumph, some of their ‘stars’ maybe been trading on their past glories, yet they were still expected to hurdle local heros Raja and make the final something of a all-superpower affair in footballing terms.

The rooster’  dominated the first half yet failed to make it pay, and six minutes into the 2nd half were punished for their profligacy when Iajour drilled the ball in from outside the box to give the ‘home’ side the lead. The Brazilians responded by piling on the pressure, yet it took a moment of true brilliance from Ronaldinho to bring the teams level. After Athletico were awarded a free-kick 25 yards from the Moroccan’s goal, the iconic playmaker stepped up and with a drop of his shoulder sold the attentive opposition the wrong way. As the wall and goalkeeper shifted their movements to the right the ball lofted over the wall and sailed into the opposite corner, a piece of brilliance which would make one write Phil Scolari a letter to plead with him for 33 year-old’s inclusion in next summers proceedings.

The moment of free-kick brilliance was worthy of winning any match, and yet it was the Moroccans who staged a smash and grab to steal the lead with an 85th minute penalty, and then with Athletico pouring forward for an equaliser, Raja broke to nick a third goal in stoppage time to the sounds of delirium from the assembled spectators.

If the nature of the match was not bizarre enough the scenes post-match were equally strange as Raja players, understandably jubilant, set about a forlorn Ronaldinho’s person in an attempt to acquire firstly his shirt and then his boots in some sort of weird asset-stripping frenzy.

And so we look forward to saturday’s final; a match which on paper looks a mismatch – the steamrolling European champions versus the domestic upstarts. Yet as we have seen so far this tournament is anything but predictable – and one this writer feels deserving of our respect.