On the eve of the 2022 Qatar World Cup final, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino unveiled his plan for the future of global soccer. Unsurprisingly, his plan is to make everything bigger.
Not content with expanding the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, Infantino has also resurrected his plans for an enlarged Club World Cup. And those plans are bigger than before.
The current seven-team format Club World Cup, which will take place for the last time in February 2023 in Morocco, was going to be expanded to 24 teams. But FIFA now wants to jump straight to 32 teams and hold the tournament every four years. If FIFA gets its way, the first 32-team Club World Cup is to take place in 2025, with the USA being mooted as a possible host.
The previous 24-team tournament, which would have probably kicked off in China in 2021 if not for covid-19, would’ve featured eight European teams, six from South America, three each from North America, Asia and Africa, and one from Oceania.
If the 32-team tournament is expanded along those lines, there could be 11 or 12 teams from Europe, seven or eight from South America, four from each of the other continents, and one from Oceania. Based on club rankings and the results of continental competitions like the Champions League, the line up could look something like this:
UEFA: Manchester City (England), Bayern Munich (Germany), Liverpool (England), Chelsea (England), Paris Saint-Germain (France), Real Madrid (Spain), Barcelona (Spain), Ajax (Netherlands), Manchester United (England), Inter Milan (Italy), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Atlético Madrid (Spain)
CONMEBOL: River Plate (Argentina), Palmeiras (Brazil), Boca Juniors (Argentina), Flamengo (Brazil), Grêmio (Brazil), Nacional (Uruguay), Peñarol (Uruguay)
CONCACAF: Monterrey (Mexico), Club America (Mexico), Seattle Sounders (USA), Atlanta United (USA)
AFC: Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Kawasaki Frontale (Japan), Jeonbuk Motors (South Korea), Al-Duhail (Qatar)
CAF: Al-Ahly (Egypt), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Espérance (Tunisia), Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa)
OFC: Auckland City (New Zealand)
If the UEFA Europa League winners are given a spot instead or if FIFA tries to broaden the range of countries involved, then teams like Benfica might take Manchester United’s place and Colombia’s Atlético Nacional could replace Uruguay’s Peñarol or Brazil’s Grêmio.
To make it a truly global tournament, FIFA could choose to only have one team per nation, but given Infantino’s desire to have “the best teams in the world” competing, that seems unlikely.
The enlarged Club World Cup might have as many teams as the current World Cup, but it is unlikely to generate the same sort of excitement.
The World Cup is the pinnacle of national team soccer, the one time every four years where the top nations really test themselves against each other with elimination just one bad result away.
It is a clash of different soccer cultures and a chance for fans from all over the world to bring their own flavor to the stadiums. It attracts people who ordinarily wouldn’t watch a soccer match if the other TV channels were showing paint drying. Almost 20 million people in the UK alone watched the World Cup quarter final clash between England and France.
The Club World Cup will be none of those things. The last nine Club World Cup champions have all been European sides, and Real Madrid will be massive favorites to make that ten out of ten in February. Throw in ten or more European sides and the knockout stages will very quickly resemble the UEFA Champions League.
The lack of preparation time and the inability to simply buy a new player to fix any perceived weakness means national teams are much closer in ability than in club soccer. Shocks like Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina or Morocco’s triumphs against Spain and Portugal happen in every World Cup.
In club soccer, the gap between the haves and have-nots is far wider.
Morocco’s team that reached the World Cup semi-finals contains some local players, but the bulk of the team play in Europe’s top five leagues. Transfermarkt.com values the Moroccan side at $255 million, around a quarter of the value of France’s squad.
Moroccan club side Wydad Casablanca, on the other hand, is valued at $18 million, about 2% of the value of France’s Paris Saint-Germain.
The UEFA Champions League rarely sees an underdog reach the knockout stages at the expense of one of the superclubs, and those underdogs are relative giants compared to the club teams from outside Europe.
Soccer fans can already see these European clubs compete in winner-takes-all clashes in the Champions League every season, so the Club World Cup won’t be anything special.
Stadiums may well be full as local fans in the USA or Asia don’t often get the chance to watch these top clubs play competitive soccer in person, but fans of teams that are not competing will be less likely to tune in and watch. Premier League sides might have fans from all around the world, but how many Tottenham Hotspur fans will be waking up in the middle of the night to watch Manchester City take on Boca Juniors?
None of the details of the tournament have come out yet, but Infantino hinted at a major prize fund to entice the largest European sides to take part.
But with the tournament still feeling a bit like a pre-season friendly tournament version of the UEFA Champions League, it might have the biggest names, but it won’t have the same pulling power as the FIFA World Cup.