For the sixth tournament out of seven in its current format, the final of the FIFA Club World Cup saw a European team take on a South American side for a title of dubious significance.
This 2011 edition of FIFA's curious club carnival saw Spanish giants Barcelona cruise through to a showdown with Brazilian heavyweights Santos at Yokohama's cavernous International Stadium. That Barça and Santos beat Asian teams in the semi-finals is instructive, for despite FIFA's grandstanding, the gap between the established heavyweights and the rest of the world shows no signs of closing.
Only the Democratic Republic of Congo's TP Mazembe have broken the European/South American stranglehold, beating Brazil's disinterested Internacional in last year's semi-final before being summarily dispatched by Inter Milan in the decider. And with Japan's Kashiwa Reysol played off the park by a determined Santos in this year's semi-final, it begs the question of why teams even bother with a tournament which continually fails to capture the imagination.
Barça will certainly wonder why they bothered. Influential striker David Villa broke his leg in a routine 4-0 win over Qatar's Al-Sadd in their semi-final, ruling him out for up to six months and probably ending his hopes of playing for Spain in EURO 2012. All that for a win over an Al-Sadd side whose participation in the Club World Cup came via an improbable route.
At the start of November, Al-Sadd beat South Korean side Jeonbuk Motors on penalties to win the 2011 Asian Champions League in the unlikeliest of circumstances. The Qatari side only entered the competition due to the disqualification of Vietnam's participants and promptly lost both legs of their quarter-final to Iran's Sepahan. But after Sepahan were determined to have fielded an ineligible player, they forfeited the first leg 3-0 and ultimately saw Al-Sadd progress at their expense. The semi-final was just as eventful, as Al-Sadd's Senegalese striker Mamadou Niang sparked a wild all-in brawl, before the Qataris snuck through to the final by the skin of their teeth, where they eventually beat Jeonbuk on penalties in front of a capacity crowd in Jeonju.
So Al-Sadd struggled through to a barely deserved Club World Cup place where arguably their biggest contribution was to end David Villa's season as he tussled for a ball between defenders Lee Jung-Soo and Abdulla Koni. Barcelona's blow was no doubt compounded by the fact their second team would have swept to victory against a spirited but technically deficient Al-Sadd side.
Yet Barça's earnest approach to the tournament speaks volumes for the fact no club side is eager to incur the wrath of FIFA. In the case of Santos, their willingness to win through to the final and possibly beat a European giant is understandable, but for the rest of the competition's seven combatants, the Club World Cup appears to be an exercise in going through some fairly predictable motions.
So stale has the tournament become, the Japanese Football Association has already announced it won't bother bidding to host the 2013 or 2014 editions. President Junji Ogura told reporters he would rather see his nation host a Women's World Cup or FIFA Under-20 World Cup than another Club World Cup, which this year has been blighted by small crowds and some serious crowd disturbances in the match between Tunisia's Esperance and Al-Sadd at Toyota Stadium.
The question remains: why does FIFA continue to persist with the Club World Cup? The answer, like so many in football, comes partly down to revenue, with FIFA and its cadre of sponsors all keen to cash in on yet another tournament crowding the international calendar. But there's also FIFA's increasingly stubborn attempts to drag the rest of the football world up to the standards of the European and South American game. It may take generations to do so, but Sepp Blatter and his cronies are to determined to spread the world game to all corners of the globe and if a Qatari side cops a pasting in Yokohama, so be it.
Thus another pointless FIFA tournament rumbles on in front dwindling Japanese crowds and a near-universal blackout of media coverage in Europe. Only the final attracts any kind of interest - somewhat ironically - since the tournament was conceived as a replacement for the old Toyota Cup once contested between the club champions of Europe and South America. David Villa missed this year's final and he probably wishes he'd missed the whole tournament. Just don't tell that to Sepp Blatter and co. - the only folks watching on in Yokohama who still insist the Club World Cup is relevant.
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