FIFA Club World Cup Preview: The Rest Of The World Cares, Chelsea Should Too
Picture this: Chelsea has just lifted Big Ears for the first time, all supporters in Munich show Japanese flags and suddenly there is a gigantic check on the pitch which reads "Welcome to Japan." No way that would happen in a Champions League final. But that is exactly what took place on 4 July when Brazilian giants Corinthians won the Libertadores Cup. It is important to say this is a South American tradition.
Playing against the European champions is a tantalising for other continental champions. This year's competition started a week ago. But Europeans and South Americans always join the party a week later, each in one semi-final. Chelsea and Corinthians should play for the trophy on 16 December. Champions of Africa, Central America, Asia, Japan and Oceania might get one their way. They usually don't.
Chelsea have never thought of this competition as an objective for the season, English clubs never do. Manchester United is the only one to have won the world title (1999 over Brazilian Palmeiras and 2007 over Ecuadorians LDU). Italians and Spanish care more -- just watch how cheerful Lionel Messi was when he scored the goals for Barcelona's 2-1 victory over Estudiantes de la Plata, in 2010.
Corinthians have been thinking of this since 4 July, when they beat multi-champions Boca Juniors to lift the South American Cup for the first time. It is an unusual feeling for Brazilians: they think locals have a high chance of winning. Their reasons are twofold: their team is the unbeaten continental champion, the first since 1978 and... Chelsea doesn't care enough (not to mention their current poor form).
The Brazilians expect to have more than 20, 000 supporters in Japan, just for this. I am going to be one of them - although I am working as well. Mexicans and Koreans are anxious to see either Monterrey or Ulsan face Chelsea. Egyptians want to see Al-Ahly intrude into the final, after playing either Sanfrecce (Japan) or Auckland City (New Zeland).
I know that you guys don't care as much. Too bad for you then.
World champions? Really?
The history of this tournament goes back to 1960. In its first edition, Europeans and South Americans would play for the Intercontinental Cup -- one match home and another away, with a tiebreaker if necessary. The early years were a big success. Di Stefano's Real Madrid trashed Uruguay's Penarol to win the first. South Americans got pay back two years later, when Pele's Santos destroyed Benfica.
But then the initial enthusiasm waned. The Libertadores Cup was a mess and Santos decided not to play in it anymore. That meant no more Pele. In 1968 Manchester United complained about playing in Argentina against Estudiantes and being thrown meat at. Ajax dropped out in 1971 and sent Panathinaikos instead. The European lack of care gave an idea to carmaker Toyota: why not just one final game in Japan?
In 1980 Nottingham Forest lost 1-0 to Nacional (Uruguay) in that format. It lasted until 2004, when Porto beat Colombian Once Caldas in a penalty shootout. As the English didn't win and didn't care, other European clubs started enjoying the competition a bit more. Some matches were truly great -- Juventus 2-2 Argentinos Jrs, Sao Paulo 3-2 AC Milan, Real Madrid 2-1 Vasco da Gama. Always tight.
FIFA didn't accept any of the winners from 1960 to 2004 as world champions. They hailed Corinthians, the winners of a test edition in 2000, as the first kings of the world. But Boca Juniors beat Real Madrid that same year for the Intercontinental Cup. Their unified version came only in 2005 - after a big gap because of the ISL scandal. ISL were FIFA's marketing partners who sponsored the event and dragged a lot of their officials into a bribery crisis.
In 2005, the first of the FIFA Club World Cup in this format, bringing teams from all continents, just like the test edition in 2000. At that time Sao Paulo beat Liverpool 1-0. Since then, there has only been one occasion when the final hasn't been decided between Europeans and South Americans, in 2009, when champions Mazembe (Congo) shocked Internacional (Brazil) in the semifinals and lost to Inter Milan afterwards.
That Brazilian side was also the last South American to win -- in 2006 they beat Ronaldinho's Barcelona 1-0 in Yokohama. Corinthians seem confident they can make history go their way this year. But Chelsea could win in spite of Rafa Benitez and their apparent lack of care. Maybe winning is the only way to make unlucky fellows like Fernando Torres wave a Japanese flag in delight.