TOKYO (Reuters) - Regardless of whether FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s plan for a 32-team Club World Cup becomes a reality, this year’s tournament in Japan is likely to highlight the need for some sort of change.
On paper, the idea of bringing together the champion club teams from each continent is perfectly laudable.
But in the last few years, the tournament has served to highlight the huge gulf between the elite clubs of Europe, represented this year by Real Madrid, and those in the rest of the world.
Barcelona barely had to break sweat last year as they won the title with successive 3-0 wins over Guangzhou Evergrande and River Plate.
In fact, European teams have not conceded a goal between them since Corinthians beat Chelsea 1-0 in the final of the 2012 tournament - the only time since 2006 that the tournament has produced a non-European winner.
This year, there is little to suggest any outcome other than Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo adding to the Champions League and Euro 2016 titles he has won already this year.
The dynamics of modern football mean that the best South American and African players play against, rather than for, the teams from their continent.
South American champions Atletico Nacional will be the first Colombian team to play at the tournament, yet their country’s best player, James Rodriguez, is in the Real Madrid squad where he is not even a regular starter.
Barcelona fielded six South American players, all of them accomplished internationals, in last year’s final, while Argentine side River Plate were made up largely of journeymen professionals.
The competition’s somewhat unwieldy seven-team format and timing, plus the fact that only South America teams regularly bring a large travelling contingent of fans, does not help.
In five months since winning the Libertadores Cup, Atletico Nacional have sold three key players - defender Marcos Moreno to Manchester City, defender Davinson Sanchez to Ajax and midfielder Sebastian Perez to Boca Juniors.
Rather than abolishing or shrinking the tournament, FIFA president Gianni Infantino suggested that it should be expanded to 32 teams and played in June, starting in 2019.
“The world has changed and that’s why we need to make the Club World Cup more interesting,” he told the Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, by creating a tournament that is much more attractive, with more quality among participants and more clubs. That will attract more sponsors and television companies from around the world.”
He did not, however, enlarge on how FIFA would do that.
For the time being, it continues on its quirky way, starting on Thursday when Oceania champions Auckland City face Kashima Antlers, champions of host nation Japan.
The winners face Mamelodi Sundowns, the first South African team to play at the tournament, on Sunday while Asian champions Jeonbuk Motors face Mexican side America, the champions of CONCACAF.
Atletico Nacional enter the fray on Dec 14 when they meet either Kashima, Auckland or Mamelodi while Real Madrid meet either America or Jeonbuk the following day - a dream tie for either side.
Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Nick Mulvenney