Chelsea May Be Crowned World Champions. Will Chelsea Fans Care?

Why the World Club Cup has become a glorified exhibition

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KAZUHIRO NOGI / AFP / Getty Images

English Premier League team Chelsea forward Juan Mata celebrates his goal against Mexico's Monterrey during their 2012 Club World Cup semi-final football match at Yokohama, Dec. 13, 2012.

Update, Sunday December 16: It was not to be. Corinthians beat Chelsea 1-0 in the final in Yokohama, denying coach Rafael Benitez his first piece of silverware at Stamford Bridge. Winning it wouldn’t have made much difference to how his reign at Chelsea will be judged; nor will losing it — for reasons explained below.

And it’s [insert name of favorite football club here]
[insert name of favorite football club here] FC!
We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen…

One of the more enduring songs heard at English football grounds over the decades, it’s the sort of boast that can’t really be proven. After all, to the extent that there is a global contest for soccer supremacy, it’s played at the quadrennial World Cup between national teams, not local clubs.

Unless, that is, you count the FIFA World Club Cup, which will be taken home by the winner of Sunday’s clash between Chelsea, champions of Europe, and Corinthians, holders of the Latin American equivalent, the Copa Libertadores. (Fox Soccer Channel at 5.30 a.m. Eastern.) Don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t heard of this particular piece of silverware; the curious mid-season fixture played in faraway Yokohama, Japan, typically between the champions of Europe and Latin America, has long been an overlooked tournament, just a step up from the sort of exhibition matches clubs play on tours of Asia during the preseason.

Well, at least for European clubs, that is — the BBC’s Tim Vickery points out that it’s approached with far more passion by the Latin American clubs, not least because their  best players have so often sign with better endowed European clubs. For most of the past two decades, now, any fan wanting to watch the best players from Brazil — and every other corner of the world — tunes into the European Champion’s League.

So, for Latin America’s standard bearer, there’s always a point to be made in putting one over Europe’s champions. And there was even a time a time when the Club World Cup might have been treated as the ultimate test of superiority between Europe and Latin America. The Club World Cup’s forerunner was the Intercontinental Cup, started in 1960 — long before satellite TV, DVRs and Internet streaming allowed the committed fan to watch football being played in every corner of the world. Even more important, it also began long before the globalization of club football brought a mass migration of players from Latin America and Africa into Europe’s top leagues. Back then, Corinthians and Chelsea would have been chalk and cheese, samba flair versus rugged English athleticism; today, the “national” identity of many of the Europe’s top teams has long-since been shredded. Chelsea will likely have more Brazilians (Ramires, Oscar and David Luiz) than Englishmen (Cahill and Cole) in its own starting lineup against Corinthians, along with an Argentine, a Czech, a Serb, a Belgian and two three Spaniards. It may be a West London club, but Chelsea — owned by a Russian oligarch and coached by a Spanish technocrat — are not exactly an English team. Not only that, the way the game is played is now broadly similar across continents.

But when the competition began, it offered a rare opportunity for the fans on each continent to see the players and styles from the other. It’s worth remembering that Pele, for example, may have been a household name after electrifying the 1958 World Cup as a 17-year-old, but most European fans wouldn’t see him (even on television) again until the 1962 World Cup, where injury forced him out in the second game, and then again at quadrennial intervals until his triumphant valedictory at the 1970 World Cup. He spent his entire top-flight career at home with Santos, and their games were not broadcast abroad.

But the Intercontinental Cup did give European fans a rare treat in 1962, as Pele led his teammates in a demolition of Portuguese champions Benfica — a game even Pele himself notes may have been his best single performance.

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Still, says Vickery, the luster went out of the competition three years later after Santos quit the Libertadores tournament — back then, there were no TV revenues to cover the clubs’ costs, and Santos’ owners deemed the Libertadores a liability. That gave Argentinian clubs, playing a notoriously artless and rugged form of the game at the time, a lock on representing Latin America at the Intercontinental — further diminishing the interest of European clubs, among whom clubs from further north had begun to dominate.

By the late ’70s, the European champions often declined to participate at all — after my beloved Liverpool won the European Cup (forerunner of the Champion’s League) in ’77, we were happy to let beaten finalists Borussia Moenchengladbach of Germany represent Europe in the meaningless intercontinental spectacle against Argentina’s Boca Juniors. There was no intercontinental match the following year, and in ’79, English European Cup winners Nottingham Forest also stepped aside to allow the beaten finalist, Sweden’s Malmo, to represent Europe.

By the time FIFA reconstituted it as the Toyota Cup, in 1980 — played as a single game in Japan in the hope of stimulating an interest in the game in the then-largely dormant Asian continent — it had become more of an exhibition game than a serious event on the world football calendar. The game was a particularly odious chore for the English clubs that dominated Europe at the time, its participation necessitated by the fact that it now paid real money. Forest lost the first one to Uruguay’s Nacional; in 1981 Liverpool were humiliated by a playmaking master-class from the Brazilian midfield maestro Zico and his Flamengo side. Uruguay’s Penarol thumped Aston Villa the following year. (Yes, folks, hard as it may be to imagine today, Aston Villa won the European Cup in 1982!)

Not many European fans bothered to stay up into the wee hours to watch a bunch of jet-lagged players take on more motivated opponents in a rubber that meant little in the game’s pantheon of honors. The tournament was reorganized as the FIFA Club World Championship in 2005, now bringing the champions from all of FIFA’s regions to compete in a seven-team tournament, in which the European and Latin American champions join only at the semifinal stage.

But these days, the tournament is played in a changing football world. Japan is no longer a novice football power; many of its best players now play at Europe’s top clubs (think Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa; Ryo Miyaichi, the Arsenal player on loan at Wigan; or CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda, who looks for a big move to the Premiership soon).

The globalization of the game has also brought a cross-pollination of styles, that means the Club World Cup is no longer really a contest of rival approaches to the game. Indeed, Corinthians’ slower, defensive counterattacking game had them compared in the Brazilian media to Chelsea in last season’s Champion’s League!

“Chelsea, the European champions, and Corinthians … are organised and efficient,” former Brazilian World Cup winner Tostao told local reporters. But, he added, “They are short on talent… In many stages of both games against Santos, Corinthians, who mark by pressing, played like Chelsea in the clashes with Barcelona and Bayern, with eight players covering their box.”

The comparison apparently enraged coach Corinthians’ coach, Tite. “Corinthians don’t play like Chelsea,” he grumbled. “Corinthians don’t do anti-football. “

At least Brazilian football culture aspires to offer something better than the organization and efficiency, even if it often fails to deliver.

Curiously enough, the one Corinthians player Chelsea is reportedly hoping to buy next month is Paulinho, not some sparkling forward or attacking midfielder, but a defensive midfield anchor, whose job is primarily to break up opponents attacks and win the ball — a role learned in Italy by the likes of Dunga, and which has now been elaborated on by a succession of Brazilian greats from Gilberto Silva through Felipe Melo to Lucas Leiva.

In a curious echo of the shifting global economic balance, Brazilian domestic football is now able to both retain its most talented players a lot longer than previously, and also attract star players from abroad who still have a few good years in them.

Santos’ outrageously talented Neymar would have gone to Europe two seasons ago under the conditions that prevailed until fairly recently; now Santos have found the money to pay him $150,000 a week, unheard of in Brazil, to keep him a while longer, at least until his desire to test himself in the game’s premier global league becomes overwhelming. Indeed, at that salary most English clubs couldn’t afford him, although there’ll be a bidding war among the wealthiest clubs in Europe when he’s ready to move.

More Brazilians are also returning to play at home before the end of their top-flight careers — Vagner Love, Luis Fabiano, Ronaldinho and Robinho — a trend likely to grow. Even stars from elsewhere, like Uruguay’s Diego Forlan and Holland’s Clarence Seedorf are opting to play out their twilight years in Brazil. And a growing number of talented younger players from other Latin American countries are also signing with Brazilian clubs, now, when a few years ago they might have been more likely to try their luck in icy Russia, Ukraine and assorted smaller Eastern European leagues, in the hope of attracting scouts from Western Europe.

So, while it may not ever match Europe’s riches, Brazilian football is certainly not feeling nearly as poor as it was a decade ago. Beating Chelsea would ice the cake, though. The problem, of course, is that this particular Chelsea outfit has something to prove: They’ve been struggling to find their groove in the Premiership, and have already been eliminated from the Champion’s League. Winning this Cup will be important to the players, none more so than Fernando Torres, the striker who appears to have finally found his shooting boots over the past three games. And nobody needs this more than Rafael Benitez, the Chelsea coach who has been the subject of non-stop barracking by the Chelsea fans since his arrival last month. Rafa may be hoping that bringing home the Club World Cup will finally endear him to the Chelsea faithful. Sadly for him, they don’t much care, either way. The Club World Cup’s just not that important to anyone in England.

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