If you were to line up 100 people and ask them to name the most important competition in football, the majority would almost certainly say the World Cup – the international tournament that transcends the sport and attracts the interest of even the most casual of observers.
By that theory, the Club World Cup should be the most prestigious club-based tournament on the planet, and yet even the most hardened of football fans would struggle to tell you when it is, who is playing in it and what the point of it all is.
The point, presumably, is to make FIFA money – they can sell the global media rights and allow the highest bidder to take on hosting duties; detractors of sportswashing look away now given that Saudi Arabia were handed the keys to the 2023 edition.
But compared to the big domestic divisions around the globe and the Champions League, the Club World Cup barely gets an inch of media coverage – so what is FIFA’s flagship domestic tournament all about?
What Is the Club World Cup?
The big cheeses at FIFA think that there’s value in a competition that brings together the best club sides in the world, and so the Club World Cup was born in the year 2000 – superseding the Intercontinental Cup, which was endorsed by key governing bodies UEFA and CONMEBOL.
By ‘best’, they mean those that win the various continental tournaments – such as the Champions League, Copa Libertadores, AFC Champions League and so on….oh, and a Saudi-based team if you allow Saudi Arabia to host the event.
The problem, of course, is that these aren’t the best club sides in the world. The vast majority of those are to be found in Europe, but only one of them can qualify for the Club World Cup via the Champions League – until 2025, that is, but more on that later.
And, it has to be said, any talented youngster coming through the club ranks in South America, Asia and the like has ambitions of playing for a giant in Europe – few are happy to remain on domestic soil for the entirety of their career.
All of which perhaps explains the general apathy towards the Club World Cup: it’s a tournament that a European club seems almost certain to win (they have every year between 2013 and 2022), and one designed instead to act as a promotional ploy for the host nation.
Because the tournament is now a vehicle for FIFA to appease their Middle Eastern paymasters – Arabian nations hosted six of the seven editions of the Club World Cup between 2017 and 2023, it means that the Club World Cup must be squished into the schedule just before Christmas.
So, if Manchester City reach the 2023 final, they will be playing in Saudi Arabia on December 22 before having to race back for a key Premier League tie on the 27th – with almost zero prestige in winning the Club World Cup in the first place.
Is That Why Nobody Cares About the Club World Cup?
The clubs involved will put on a brave face and say all of the right things, but the truth is that Pep Guardiola would much prefer his players to be on home soil in England preparing for a hectic 2024 – not thousands of miles away playing in a meaningless exhibition tournament ahead of the manic festive schedule of Premier League fixtures.
There’s a feeling that football is so popular and ubiquitous that if one of the sports channels broadcast a bunch of mates having a kick about down the park viewers would tune in. But the Club World Cup? Not so much.
TNT Sports have been persuaded to take on the TV rights in the UK, a year after Channel 4 showed the games for free – so little was the interest in a bidding war for the tournament. But even then the broadcaster has opted to show Man City’s game against Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan their TNT Sports 2 channel; they’ve deemed highlights of the cricket test match between Australia and Pakistan more befitting for their main TNT Sports 1 channel at the same time.
The malaise is shared by those attending the games in person. Club World Cup games involving a side like, say, Barcelona, Real Madrid or a host nation representative are typically well supported, but others….well, aren’t. At the 2023 edition, just 2,525 turned up to watch Urawa and Mexican side Leon in Jeddah; fractionally more than the seasonal average attending the home matches of Torquay United.
Indeed, here’s a look at the lowest, highest and average attendances at Club World Cup games over the past decade – the 2020 edition waylaid by the global crisis.
As you can see, it’s not uncommon for Club World Cup games to have attendances that would be on the thin side for a non-league game in England. And even those average attendance figures can be considered modest for a competition that, as far as FIFA are concerned, should be the pinnacle of club football.
Back in the year 2000, Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos admitted that his teammates considered the Club World Cup as nothing more than a holiday in Brazil. That probably explains why they were beaten into fourth place – and confirms the malaise that even the players feel towards the tournament.
The Club World Cup: A Global View
There’s a feeling that clubs from other countries take the Club World Cup more seriously than they do in Europe.
In years gone by, the likes of Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Internacional took great pride in labelling themselves as ‘world champions’ – as they had a right to do after the lifting this trophy in the early 2000s.
It’s worth noting too that the prize money available for winning the Club World Cup or even reaching the latter stages – while chump change to a top European side – will make a huge difference to the budget of a club from Africa or Latin America.
In recent years, European clubs have used this World Cup as an expedition; a chance to enjoy some warm weather training and blood youngsters into semi-high profile competition.
But clubs from other continents have generally travelled mob-handed to the Club World Cup, deploying their best players without any notion of resting them or fielding reserves or youth teamers. They want to win this trophy – and are happy to go down fighting for the cause.
What Is the Club World Cup Prize Money?
We’ve learned that broadcasters aren’t too fussed about the Club World Cup, fans and armchair viewers aren’t tuning in and even local football lovers need some convincing to swap an evening in front of the TV to attend a game.
So surely the prize money available makes it all worthwhile? Erm, not really….
Between December 17 and 22 in 2023, Manchester City travelled around 8,000 miles to play just two Club World Cup games in scorching heat….with the potential prize of just $5 million (around £3.9 million) for winning the tournament, which is the equivalent of one of Jack Grealish’s toenails.
To make matters worse, losing in the semi-finals will result in a payout of just £1.95 million – barely enough for a night in one of Saudi Arabia’s more salubrious hotels.
And when you compare the various prize monies that are available to an English club in particular, you can see why so few have a mojo for the Club World Cup:
As you can see, there’s not a great deal of financial incentive to winning the Club World Cup.
After landing back at Manchester Airport, City’s players will have just three days to shake off the jetlag before they embark on a run of three domestic games in eleven days….is it any wonder that there’s so much ambivalence towards the Club World Cup?
How Will the 2025 Club World Cup Work?
FIFA have realised that the only way to instil any sense of interest in the Club World Cup is to expand the format so that more European clubs qualify for it – therefore, some of the best players on the planet will be in tow.
So as of 2025, FIFA will say to hell with the summer break for the players – instead, they will embark on a trip to the United States for a 32-team Club World Cup, with the tournament then joining the four-year cycle alongside the international World Cup, the European Championship and the like.
Europe will have as many as 12 entrants representing it, with all six football confederations represented by at least one of their club sides The tournament will be made up of eight groups of four teams, who will play each other in round robin fashion. The top two from each group will then precede to the knockout phase.
Places in the competition will be ringfenced for the Champions League winners within the previous four-year cycle, as well as representatives from the nations with the highest coefficient rating. Already confirmed from Europe are:
- Manchester City
- Real Madrid
- Bayern Munich
- Inter Milan
- FC Porto
If you support one of these teams and thought your heroes might get a chance to rest up over the summer of 2025, unfortunately that won’t now happen. However, there’s better news for Liverpool and Manchester United supporters, whose club definitely won’t be involved.
The host nation, the United States, will have a guaranteed place for their MLS champions, while CONMEBOL (South America) will have six representatives, the CONCACAF, CAF and AFC confederations four teams and Oceania will have Auckland City as their guaranteed entrant.
There’s no news on the prize money, although it seems a certainty that will increase in line with the enhanced size and scale of the competition – as much as £50 million to the winner has been mooted. And with Europe’s presence expanded, the Club World Cup will finally feel like a tournament of prestige.
But will it be enough to truly bring the competition out of the shadows of irrelevancy?
FIFA have decided that the only way to improve the reputation and prestige of the Club World Cup is to entice participants with the only currency they truly understand: cold, hard cash.
If you were worried that the gap between the haves and the have nots is too wide in modern football, wait until each team contesting the Club World Cup is bagging an extra £50 million every four years – for a competition that they don’t really even want to be a part of.
And don’t worry about the welfare of the players who, if they are of an international standard, will now only likely get one summer off in four given the tournament schedule.
Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva is just one of the players to speak out publicly against the expanded Club World Cup.
“In my opinion, for people who love the game, if we have this many games for so long, in the end the games will lose the energy, will lose the intensity,” he said.
“I am not going to lie, sometimes I feel tired. We play every three days, we don’t rest. We have no Christmas, we have no summer.”
His manager, Pep Guardiola, was somewhat more coy but also spelled out his own warning of what the expanded Club World Cup will do to the schedule:
“It is really, really tough to finish the season and in three weeks you have to restart again and go to Asia [to be financially stable, or go to the States, or wherever. It’s really tough for myself but especially for the players and I think this should change.”
FIFPRO, an agency which represents player welfare, has released a statement which reads:
“The FIFA Council’s decision today to schedule the first edition of the 32-team FIFA Club World Cup between 15 June and 13 July 2025 without implementing further player workload safeguards demonstrates a lack of consideration for the mental and physical health of participating players, as well as a disregard for their personal and family lives.”