Remembering the ill-fated Club World Cup of 2001

Remembering the ill-fated Club World Cup of 2001

FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, are doing their latest round in the headlines amidst reports that they are once again going to attempt to enforce changes on the Club World Cup. The ideas supposedly being pondered include proposals to expand the tournament to 16 or 24 teams and host it every four years as a replacement for the Confederations Cup or revamp it as an annual competition that will take place every summer and feature several top European teams.

UEFA, probably suspecting a threat to the integrity of the Champions League, have been unreservedly critical of the plans, branding them “dodgy”, “cynical” and as exhibiting “ruthless mercantilism”. However, arguably a more prominent problem is the fact that FIFA have been down this route before – and spectacularly failed. Seventeen years ago they attempted to expand the Club World Cup to craft it a reputation as a competition with genuine worldwide prestige. The result was the entire tournament being scrapped before a ball had been kicked.

The Club World Cup was first proposed by FIFA in 1993. At the time, the nearest equivalent was the Intercontinental Cup, an annual match between the holders of the Champions League and South America’s Copa Libertadores. Clubs from North America, Asia and Africa were refused participation by UEFA and CONMEBOL, prompting Joao Havelange and co to want a more inclusive competition that featured representation from all of the continental confederations and could officially crown bona fide ‘world champions’. 

During the next seven years, the framework was slowly but surely put in place. Teams and confederations were brought on board and Brazil was declared as the host nation before the Club World Cup launched in January 2000. Containing eight teams from six different continents, the competition began with Real Madrid recording a 3-1 win against Saudi Arabian outfit Al Nassr. Other notable participants included Manchester United, Corinthians and Vasco da Gama; the latter two contested an all-Brazilian final which Corinthians edged on penalties.

The first edition of the competition was warmly received in Brazil and perhaps laid the foundations for its eventual popularity in South America. However, overall it was a relatively low-key affair and probably best remembered for the then Treble-defending United’s controversial decision to withdraw from that season’s FA Cup in order to free up their schedule to take part in it. The FA hoped the move would court international support for England’s campaign to host the 2006 World Cup, although at the event, United slumped out of the group stage whilst failing to resemble a side that sincerely cared about the tournament. Indeed, Vasco da Gama chairman Gerson publicly chastised them for “[coming to Brazil] to drink whisky and make the most of the sun.”

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Disappointed the competition’s debut outing had missed the mark of global appeal, FIFA determinedly pulled out all of the stops for the second Club World Cup in 2001. Firstly, the location was shifted from Brazil to Spain, with the majority of matches scheduled to take place in Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and Vicente Calderon. The number of teams were expanded from eight to 12 as clubs that won secondary continental competitions such as the UEFA Cup and African Cup Winners’ Cup were also invited in a bid to cover as many corners of the globe as possible. The time of year was also moved from January to August to be aligned with major international tournaments, the overall prize money was notably increased from $28m to 40m and the duration of the tournament was lengthened from 10 to 16 days. 

Despite the pizzazz, flaws remained and the schedule of 28 July to 12 August failed to suit many teams. For the European sides, it was on the eve of their domestic season, meaning there would be an inclination to approach the tournament as a pre-season fitness builder and thus with a similar indifference to Manchester United the year before. For Palmeiras, it would fall slap bang in the middle of Brazil’s gruelling football calendar, piling further matches onto a hectic schedule which already required them to play 70 to 80 games in a year. For LA Galaxy, it would interrupt the business end of the season, leaving them with a potential fixture pileup during their attempts to secure a spot in the MLS playoffs. In other words, there was a very slim guarantee that the most prominent clubs in the tournament would turn up in top or indeed keen form.

The decision to host the tournament in Spain was equally misguided, primarily because it automatically ensured that it would fail to exploit Real Madrid – the biggest name on its roll call – and their global appeal. Instead, their fans were not enticed by the chance to watch their team play little-known opponents from Ghana, Honduras and Egypt in encounters that could only promise to be one-sided.

A few months before the tournament, the venues hosting the matches labelled the demand for tickets as “limited”. Tellingly, today the Club World Cup tends to switch between Japan, Morocco and the UAE; by no means footballing powerhouses but countries more adept at getting bums on seats for a competition of this nature. 2001 illustrated that irrespective of the title of world champions being on offer, a Jubilo Iwata fan will always be more excited by their team playing Real Madrid than vice versa.

Soon the apathy spread to sponsors and broadcasters. Traffic, a Brazilian agency responsible for selling the rights to the previous tournament, admitted they were seriously struggling this time round and there was more interest in the Confederations Cup taking place earlier in the summer. The first speculative murmurs that the tournament might not happen began to surface, particularly in America. “There had been enough ‘this might not happen’ going on,” Greg Vanney, an LA Galaxy defender at the time, told in 2016. “You kind of knew it was lingering in the balance there and there was a good chance it might not happen for us. Everybody was disappointed.”

The final nail in the coffin was a financial one. Swiss sports marketing company International Sports and Leisure (ISL) collapsed in early 2001 with debts of £153m. The outfit shared close ties with FIFA, having reportedly paid handsome amounts to their officials during the previous two years, and was set to be heavily involved in both funding and promoting that year’s Club World Cup. 

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When an eleventh-hour takeover bid from a French company failed, FIFA were plunged into a world of chaos; early reports indicated that the 2002 World Cup could lose up to £150m due to a lack of sponsors, UEFA lost an estimated £9m overnight and threatened to sue, and there were indignant calls for Sepp Blatter’s resignation. For the Club World Cup, the situation was particularly bleak. FIFA now faced the task of staging an international competition that had failed to attract enthusiasm from fans, sponsors, broadcasters and even certain teams set to participate in it on a thoroughly limited budget.

The outcome was inevitable. On 18 May 2001, 71 days before the tournament was scheduled to begin, FIFA officially cancelled that year’s edition of the Club World Cup. Their statement downplayed the impact of ISL’s collapse, instead blaming “the economic crises affecting the countries of some of the participating clubs [that] heightened existing commercial difficulties.” However, no club or confederation had expressed an intention or possibility of resigning from the competition due to monetary issues. The African media also spun their own take on the tournament’s cancellation, boldly proclaiming that FIFA were frightened unknown quantities such as Ghana’s Hearts of Oak and Egyptian side Zamalek would cause an upset against some of world’s biggest teams.

The 12 clubs lined up to take part received a compensation payment of $750,000 whilst the Spanish FA were given $1m. FIFA initially declared that the Club World Cup would return in 2003 with an even more expanded 16-team format and an intention to still host it in Spain. It eventually came back in 2005 in Japan, featuring just six teams competing in a simplified knockout bracket over the space of a week. It has used this structure ever since.

The Club World Cup remains a curious competition. In South America, the opportunity to play in it is considered a career highlight, in Europe it is essentially treated as a glorified friendly competition, and for the rest of the world, it is a tournament where there is nothing more than the chance to play a showpiece fixture or two against the globally famous names of football at stake. It is adored and ignored in equal measure and seems to remain on the constant periphery of being rated as a trophy worth winning.

Understandably, this frustrates FIFA and this chapter in the Club World Cup’s chequered history underlines why it has always been perceived as something they never quite got right. Many would agree that an authentically popular and competitive tournament between clubs from all four corners of the globe would be good for football. Scrapping the Confederations Cup – a nice competition but one which isn’t really necessary – in order to give it a greater share of the spotlight should be a positive move. 

However, they only need to refer to their own history books to remind themselves that attempting to improve the Club World Cup by shifting it to the summer and getting more teams involved isn’t always the best idea.

By Sam Pearce @sam_j_pearce

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