GENEVA (AP) — A little-loved member of FIFA’s family of soccer tournaments for so long, the latest Club World Cup starts Wednesday as a seven-team event two years after that format was due to have been abolished and two years before an ambitious revamp with up to 32 teams.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has wanted since being elected to lead soccer's world governing body in 2016 to create a bigger and better version of its only club tournament, an event he once valued at potentially worth $3 billion per edition promising tens of millions in prize money for each team.
Until a major overhaul — likely in 2025 after the European season — FIFA goes year-to-year with the smaller mid-season version of the intercontinental championship that barely adds to its multi-billion dollar income.
FIFA will pay $5 million of a $16 million total prize fund to the winner next week, likely to be Real Madrid on a brief, two-game visit to Morocco that could start with a semifinal against the Seattle Sounders. The champion of Europe has won 14 of the 15 titles since 2007.
The tournament’s shifting place in a congested global soccer calendar was shown by FIFA confirming Morocco as host just six weeks ago.
That decision was taken in Qatar on the day Infantino targeted 2025 for the first 32-team club event -- “making it really like a World Cup,” he said in Doha.
The timing surprised some soccer officials in Europe who see FIFA's ambitions in club soccer threatening their domestic leagues and the globally popular, hugely lucrative Champions League. Before going to FIFA, Infantino was the UEFA general secretary overseeing the Champions League and knows exactly the appeal and value of staging top-level clubs.
Infantino quickly identified in 2016 two FIFA events for men’s continental champions that had limited appeal nor value, because broadcast and sponsor rights are currently bundled with the World Cup.
The Confederations Cup for eight national teams stopped in 2017. The Club World Cup has limped on while Infantino has been stymied — by UEFA and the COVID-19 pandemic — in efforts to relaunch it.
FIFA has said a bigger Club World Cup will “promote and grow football for the benefit of all confederations, member associations, leagues, clubs and fans.”
In a tumultuous 2018, Infantino’s push to accept a $25 billion offer to create new competitions met UEFA objections to secrecy about the investors who would have an ownership stake. The deal called for a Club World Cup every four years and a follow-up proposal for an annual event also was resisted.
One year later in Shanghai, the ruling FIFA Council agreed to a 24-team Club World Cup launching in June 2021 hosted by China. Europe would have eight teams though FIFA wanted 12 to help drive new commercial deals.
The format was expected to feature eight three-team groups with winners advancing to the quarterfinals. Teams would play at most five games over 18 days in late June, like the Confederations Cup schedule.
FIFA shelved it in March 2020, taking an inevitable decision when the pandemic forced the European Championship and Copa America to be postponed to start in June 2021.
Into that void, 12 of Europe’s most storied clubs tried to launch a breakaway Super League project. It failed within days amid a backlash from UEFA, fan groups and lawmakers.
Infantino later acknowledged having talks with some Super League clubs, including Real Madrid and Barcelona, which had backed the earlier $25 billion project. He denied “in any way whatsoever that FIFA was behind or colluding or plotting” for a Super League.
When Club World Cup expansion was on hold, the scheduled 2020 edition in Qatar didn't turn out to be the farewell FIFA once intended for the seven-team format. The tournament wasn't played that year because of the pandemic delaying three continental finals, pushing the 2020 Club World Cup into 2021.
The 2021 edition was played in February 2022 with Abu Dhabi as a short-notice replacement for Japan, which backed out citing expected COVID-related limits on spectators in December.
The 2022 edition was delayed to start this month because the World Cup in Qatar was on last December, the regular time slot for the Club World Cup since 2005.
So there could now be two Club World Cups staged in 2023, with a regular December edition in the mix. Maybe a farewell for the seven-team format will have to wait until December 2024.
FIFA said this week that no decisions have been made.
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