The Club World Cup final, a match about much more than a trophy

On the first day Chelsea arrived in Abu Dhabi, the club’s staff realized that something had to be clear to the players.

They felt the vibe was too close to a pre-season tour. It was somewhat natural since their base at the Ritz Carlton is so opulent and allows players to almost walk from their rooms to the training ground for twice-daily sessions in the scorching sun.

Thomas Tuchel’s coaches could forgive a relaxed atmosphere, but they couldn’t let it take hold. Petr Cech told the team of his immense regret for not having won the Club World Cup in 2012. Jorginho told them about the hurricane they will face against Palmeiras.

“It’s an opportunity for them to play against a European team,” said the Brazilian-born midfielder. “It’s a big thing. They will come for us. We have to be prepared for this.

Players were made all too aware of its importance, to the point that some staff members noted an “encouraging” anxiety in the semi-final win over Al Hilal. The club are all too aware of the wider importance of the competition, which goes far beyond even winning this year’s trophy.

The fact that we don’t even know what form the next release will take, or where it will stand, sums it up. The Club World Cup may not inspire much interest in the UK, but it is absolutely crucial for the future of football.

There’s both its literal geographical location, in Abu Dhabi, and its place in the sport itself amid an extremely fluid period when it comes to the politics and structure of football.

Chelsea players pose for a photo ahead of their Club World Cup semi-final

(Getty Pictures)

The fact that this is the emirate’s fifth time hosting the Club World Cup is in itself a symbolic illustration of its rise to prominence. Just look at Manchester City’s dominance and how Abu Dhabi’s ownership of the club has transformed the landscape of European football. Had Chelsea’s narrow 1-0 victory in the Champions League final played out in a slightly different way, it could have been a great sort of homecoming. As things stand, Abu Dhabi looks like the new center of world football. A core of the game’s key characters are present.

The whole of the Middle East is described by many in-game as the “heart of FIFA”, especially with this year’s World Cup taking place just 300km from Abu Dhabi in Qatar.

The bottom line is that this is still where Fifa’s main long-term funding comes from. That’s why the Club World Cup is so relevant and why it’s obvious that the prize money for the competition has yet to be announced. Even Chelsea sources couldn’t shed light on this.

If Infantino had succeeded, it would have been much bigger, and this Club World Cup would have been very different. The big plan was for it to be a 24-team event in China, funded by SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate that has worked with Saudi investors. Saudi Arabia’s new power in the game has been seen through the takeover of Newcastle United, as they follow their political allies to Abu Dhabi.

Hosting this Club World Cup might have been more ruinous for the game at large than the Super League – but might well have gone along with it as a route to qualification. Multiple sources talk about constant contact between Infantino and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and ambitious talks about top clubs receiving £150m in prize money. Even anything close to those numbers would have wiped out the competitive balance of the game. That’s why it’s politically astute for Chelsea to take this seriously, even before we get to the putative significance of the trophy itself.

The pandemic ended that plan, but also appears to have diluted China’s influence over sport, as well as FIFA. Many sources claim that the country just isn’t as big as the decline in Chinese Super League deals indicates. The big push to host the 2030 World Cup, which will mark its historic centenary, has yet to come.

The Club World Cup sits in the middle of this, along with many layers of political intrigue. There had been an expectation in the game that Conmebol, the South American federation, would be awarded the 2030 World Cup for Uruguay and Argentina due to the romance of the former hosting the first tournament in 1930 and of the second reaching the final.

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin tries to protect Champions League value

(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Many believe it was when that didn’t happen, and Fifa seemed to be waiting for China, that Conmebol decided to side with UEFA in the ongoing stalemate over the biennial World Cups. . South American FA president Alejandro Dominguez initially backed Fifa’s idea, as he said The Independent ahead of the 2018 Copa Libertadores final.

Now, as a big riposte to Fifa, Conmebol and UEFA have extended a memorandum of understanding. This will see a prestigious ‘Finalissima’ played between the champions of the two continents, which will take place at Wembley on June 1, as well as the potential for future collaborations such as a 32-team Nations League.

He was widely seen in the game as an expert political play on the biennial World Cup, especially given Infantino’s insistence the idea could pass Congress tomorrow. The message to Fifa was: “You may have the votes, but we have the teams that make money”.

The battle over the biennial World Cup is therefore seen as a proxy for a much bigger war between Fifa and UEFA over the future of club play.

Aleksander Ceferin and his hierarchy know that Infantino has seen the riches of the Champions League, and wants his own version – the expanded one of the Club World Cup. UEFA is determined to block such plans.

As such, the biennial World Cup is really seen as a weapon to break that. It’s not just about Fifa’s leverage. It’s about Infantino showing investors that Fifa has more sources of income. This whole idea remains somewhat airy, however. Sources who have been in the room with Infantino in Abu Dhabi say he has been repeatedly pressed about plans for the biennial World Cup, and when there might be movement, but has not given concrete answers.

The world body launched a Club World Cup bid at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit, but it wasn’t as successful as they would have liked. They wanted partnerships worth £2billion but couldn’t even get half of it. Hence the continued importance of financial power bases like Abu Dhabi, and the growth of the current Club World Cup.

Fifa would of course insist that their intentions are pure and that this is all about the growth of the game. Infantino, for his part, has the usual ambitions of using the game to heal the world; to bridge the differences. That’s why club players believe he actually has a better working relationship with countries that want to ‘sportswash’ because there’s a perceived overlap in goals. Sources within the governing bodies scoff at Infantino’s love of the tight handshake, which almost signals a sense of statesmanship.

It has been surprising that Fifa has not yet been so proactive with North America, given that the United States, Canada and Mexico share the 2026 World Cup, and their main interest at the moment is to develop new or growing markets.

Even the candidacy of the five federations for Euro 2028 is considered in this context. While the FA and their partners know they won’t get the votes, the change is seen as an indication that most of their business will now be with UEFA rather than Fifa. This 2028 event is virtually certain to be a 32-team tournament, with condensed qualifiers, but the Nations League has expanded to include South American nations. It would suit the latter, since it would be outside of a World Cup cycle.

There is even speculation that any Spain-Portugal 2030 bid could involve high-profile fixtures such as the opener taking place in Uruguay to acknowledge the centenary romance.

That’s the political climate of the game right now. This all comes amid a battle over club play, but has been sparked entirely by Fifa’s plans for an expanded Club World Cup.

A phantom tournament that does not yet exist has caused chaos that could yet change the face of the game. UEFA are now confident of their position, but remain wary of the big clubs’ ambitions.

It gives a different twist to this weekend, which is much more than the trophy that players like Cech missed out on in 2012.

Much more is happening behind the scenes. There are so many things that are still unclear, let alone for the actors involved.

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