Sports

The Club World Cup is awful for football

An expanded Club World Cup is just another money and power grab – screw player welfare, screw meaning, screw sense

December 19, 2023 5:00 pm

“Sometimes I feel tired,” Bernardo Silva said in Jeddah on Monday. It’s probably giving a player simply talking openly too much credit to conclude that Silva was offering a pastiche of Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s “today I am disabled” speech. But imagination is the beginning of creation so we’re choosing to believe it anyway. Anything to think back to that soulless conference centre when heads suddenly jumped up like meerkats as Infantino came in off his long run-up.

Or maybe Silva is just knackered, a long way from home and answering a question about something that has just been inserted into his one likely extended break on the horizon.

And if Silva is tired now, just wait until the next Club World Cup. City are in Saudi Arabia for the last seven-team, 11-day tournament and Fifa’s expanded Club World Cup is out in the open. In the USA in 2025, 32 teams will play a tournament of the same format as the last World Cup (but not the next one, obviously, because that has been extended too).

Silva’s point is that there are elite footballers who will have a maximum of three weeks off at once between August 2023 and June 2027. The expansion of the Champions League and Europa League next season means up to 55 matches for those who finish between ninth and 24th in the new Swiss-style system. That’s without the FA Cup, Carabao Cup, internationals or any European qualifying fixtures.

That comes off the back of Euro 2024. For Chelsea and Manchester City, along with 10 other European clubs, next season then leads into a Club World Cup with up to seven competitive matches. Then it’s another season of Swiss-style European competitions that leads into a World Cup that will be more than a week longer than usual due to its expansion. The final is scheduled for 19 July, roughly a month before domestic leagues restart. They cannot be pushed back because of the Nations League finals in 2027. Then it’s Euro 2028 and Club World Cup 2029 and oh my god please make it all stop.

There are specific issues pertaining to the expanded Club World Cup. By inserting a domestic competition into a summer break, you raise questions about what happens to out-of-contract players (30 June is the usual expiry and they will presumably be omitted). You have the potential for players being sold by their clubs while still in active club competition, potentially even to another club in the same tournament.

The Club World Cup will start in June, meaning players lose their usual summer holiday, rest and recovery period. It will end on 13 July, after which domestic players have usually returned to preseason. Think that clubs are going to give them leave then and undermine their preparations for the next domestic season? Think on.

“Ha, three weeks?! They’re paid a load of money and when was the last time I got three weeks off from my job”. Which… well, fair enough. And in terms of simply being present you have a point. But football is an entertainment product that relies upon its actors being in peak physical shape. They’re not saying “I demand four weeks in Mauritius if I’m going to turn up to work”. They’re saying “I really need to recover from all this football if you want me to play all this football to your exacting standards”.

Instead, what you have is a new type of football, a weird hinterland between competitive matches and friendlies. We will be told, on a relentless hype cycle in shouted brash tones by too-perfect advertising personalities, that this is bigger and better and bolder and braver than ever before, football turned up to 14 because 11 is for babies.

And then we watch the matches and we see it because we have watched thousands of matches before. This isn’t football. It’s going through the motions as a sport in its own right. Players are half-knackered from the previous season and half-preserving themselves for the next one. Games simultaneously matter and don’t matter at all while we’re told they matter more than anything. It creates the potential for the ultimate irony: being kings of the world may never have meant less.

But more broadly, this tournament speaks of the great chasm that exists within the game. The World Leagues Forum has complained to Fifa that it was not consulted about the plans. Instead, it is the European Club Association, which represents the major clubs, who were lobbied and warmly welcome the expansion. More matches on different continents with Fifa’s branding equals another vast revenue windfall.

Within those clubs, there is disagreement too. Players feel that their physical wellbeing is being exploited in the pursuit of greater wealth. Managers, also pushed beyond the limit, side with the players. But both camps know who pays their wages and so are left to euphemise in press conferences halfway across the world.

Nothing they say will make a difference. Football is controlled by those who are in it to protect their own power and status and to make as much money for those whom they represent. Other competitions may shrink – FA Cup replays, secondary domestic cup competitions – but not to provide room for rest. The value of the product is measured only in the revenue it generates, not by its aesthetic value or standards of competition.

Within this structure supporters, players, managers don’t really matter. The season ticket prices at elite clubs will not decrease because your club has been handed a new revenue stream. We should only be surprised that the first edition is not being held in Saudi Arabia or Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, only to be moved further down the line to smack bang in the middle of the domestic season. Save that for 2029, eh.

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