The fifth edition of the FIFA Club World kicks off in Tokyo tonight, but for Japan the tournament marks the end of an era. In 2009 the competition will shift to Abu Dhabi, bringing an end to almost thirty years of intercontinental football in the Land Of The Rising Sun. It’s a switch that demonstrates the changing tides of world football.
The first intercontinental clash between European and South American champions took place as far back as 1960, when Spanish aristocrats Real Madrid Agen Dominoqq beat Uruguayan giants Penarol in a home-and-away tie to be crowned the first unofficial world champions. Over the next twenty years a series of increasingly violent clashes saw some European clubs boycott intercontinental football, but a move to the National Stadium in Tokyo in 1980 revitalised the concept.
Played in front of packed houses at the home of the 1964 Olympic Games, the so-called Intercontinental Cup drew thousands of Japanese fans curious to catch a glimpse of top-class football in the days before the professional J. League kicked off. A generous sponsorship deal with Toyota ensured the financial viability of the fixture, and South American teams in particular looked forward to the trip to Tokyo, winning the first five one-off finals played on neutral territory, although their European counterparts did eventually catch up.
The death knell for the duel-continent format was sounded in 2000 when FIFA established a rival eight team Club World Championship in Brazil – leading to the curious position of two world champions being crowned in that year, as Boca Juniors beat Real Madrid in Tokyo, while Corinthians saw off Vasco da Gama in an all-Brazilian final in Rio. The latter was a tournament made infamous by Manchester United’s decision to withdraw from that season’s FA Cup in order to take part in Rio, with United under pressure from an English FA desperate to win hosting rights for the 2006 World Cup.
Bankruptcy of FIFA’s marketing firm ISL meant the tournament did not take place between 2001 and 2004, but with the game’s governing body keen to include a broader spectrum of its members for an intercontinental showdown, the 2004 Intercontinental Cup final – by now played at the 70,000-capacity Yokohama International Stadium – was to be the last of its kind. Fittingly FC Porto lifted the crown, beating Colombian minnows Once Caldas on penalties, as Europe and South America shared twelve wins each during the fixture’s history in Japan.
Since usurping the Intercontinental Cup in 2005, teams from Africa, Central America, Asia and Oceania have all taken part in FIFA’s revamped Club World Cup, but not surprisingly all finals contested have featured European and South American clubs. In 2007 the addition of a team from the J. League was intended to revive local interest in early round fixtures, but ironically no team has actually qualified through the league – with Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka taking their place in the last two tournaments as reigning Asian champions. FIFA stipulates that only one team from the host country can take part, so the place intended for a J. League team has instead gone to Asian runners-up Sepahan and Adelaide United respectively.
Even the addition of Urawa Reds – Japan’s best-supported club – failed to lift attendances to any great heights in 2007. Some 12,000 empty seats greeted global broadcasters at Toyota Stadium when Urawa took on Sepahan in their opening match last year, although a Monday night kick-off against a team that the Reds had only just beaten to lift the Asian crown meant that hopes of a sell-out crowd were perhaps a tad optimistic. This year Gamba Osaka will make their Club World Cup bow on a Sunday night, and tournament officials will be delighted that their fans do not have quite as far to travel as Urawa fans did last year.
A more worrying scenario could potentially be the semi-final showdown at the National Stadium in Tokyo featuring Ecuador’s LDU Quito and the winner of the quarter-final clash between Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and Mexican upstarts Pachuca. The Ecuadorians are virtually unknown in Japan, but having denied ex-Urawa striker Washington an emotional return to Japan by beating Fluminense in last year’s Copa Libertadores final, tournament officials will hope that Japanese fans get behind the South American underdogs, otherwise their debut in Tokyo could be played in front of a half-empty stadium.
Attendance worries aside, the final Club World Cup to take place in Japan before its switch to Abu Dhabi means that the era of Japanese fans enjoying international calibre club football in their own backyard could be drawing to a close. Although the tournament will temporarily return to Japan for the 2011 and 2012 editions, the parameters of world football have gradually shifted, and the oil-rich Gulf States look best placed to cash in.
With Asian football’s headquarters reputedly on the move to the Gulf and Emirati sheiks investing previously unimaginable sums into English football, the days of Japan hosting the best of European and South American club football look to be winding down. Instead Japanese fans will have to content themselves with a circus of meaningless friendlies or, worse still, a dreaded “39th game.”