The best soccer clubs on Earth all get together to decide the champion of the world. There is even an impressive-looking trophy to hand out. The tournaments to crown the champions of Europe and South America are massive. Therefore, this should be an even bigger deal.

Sadly, the opposite is the truth. The FIFA Club World Cup is happening now, and you might not even know the tournament exists.

Professional soccer’s overlooked championship

The Club World Cup is unique. Soccer is the only major professional sport that annually crowns a world champion amongst club teams. That is a real-world championship where you have to defeat other continental champion teams worldwide. It is not the NFL or MLB’s idea of a “world” champion.

Some of the biggest names in soccer have won the Club World Cup. Real Madrid holds the record with five titles. FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Corinthians, Liverpool, Chelsea, São Paulo, Internacional, Milan, Inter Milan and Manchester United have also won titles in the competition’s modern form.

But whether the Club World Cup or its forerunner, the Intercontinental Cup, the competition has never carried as much prestige as you’d think that it would. Unlike its international cousin, the regular World Cup, which captivates the entire planet for a month, even the soccer world barely blinks an eye at the Club World Cup.

Why is this? Indifference from European clubs and fans is a big factor. And at least in part, it comes down to several things. Namely, the competition’s format, timing, location, and promotion caused a lack of interest from the soccer community. This has been the case since the tournament began decades ago.

Crowning a world champion – a history

The earliest attempts in earnest to have a true world championship for club teams were in the 1950s and 60s. But the Intercontinental Cup only pitted the champions of UEFA and CONMEBOL against one another. While a side from one of these two – the strongest soccer regions of the day – winning the title would have been a foregone conclusion, it did not include the entire world.

And on many occasions, European teams declined to participate for various reasons.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a true world championship with representatives from all six confederations happened. Corinthians of Brazil won on home turf. Even with a more robust field of entrants, the competition still has never captured the imagination of the soccer world.

Less than ideal circumstances to cultivate a popular event

Why don’t fans and clubs take it seriously? The format might be one reason. Since the second modern edition in 2005, the competition has used a knockout format. But FIFA gave byes to the European and South American teams. That allows them to enter the competition later. Thus, those sides have to win fewer games.

Since 2007, the champion of the host nation’s top domestic league earned a place in the competition. A champion nonetheless, these teams are not on the same level as the six other continental winners participating.

European clubs and supporters treating the tournament as a distraction certainly can also stem from the timing of the competition. It is smack in the middle of the European club season. Of course, there is no ideal time since leagues around the world play at different times of the year.

From 2005-2023, the Club World Cup has been played in either Japan, the Middle East, or Morocco. Aside from the Morocco years, this has led to odd kick-off times for fans of the biggest clubs in the tournament, making it harder to follow.

And then you have the promotion for the tournament. In the USA, the competition gets no publicity. After a few years on FOX Sports, this year the tournament is not on TV at all. Games are streaming for free on FIFA+.

While this all contributes to relative indifference to the tournament in Europe, South American clubs consider it to be a high honor to win. Boca Juniors recently released a commemorative shirt to celebrate their 3rd Intercontinental Cup victory in 2003.

Change on the horizon

Alas, this is the last ever Club World Cup – at least in its present form. Come 2025, a new, expanded version of the tournament will take place. And it could be just what is needed to elevate the competition to the global phenomenon it ought to be.

Moving to the European club offseason in June and July, the new revamped Club World Cup will have a familiar format. The 32-team, eight-groups-of-four setup used by the World Cup from 1998-2022 will be adopted.

The winners of the UEFA, CONMEBOL, AFC, CAF, and CONCACAF top club competitions, including the Champions League, and Copa Libertadores, from each year in 2021-2024 qualify. OFC (Oceania) will get one spot, along with the host country. The remaining ten slots go to the highest-ranking teams from Europa and South America not already qualified, based on club rankings.

Some clubs have already qualified. Among them are Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Flamengo, Fluminense, Monterrey, Seattle Sounders and Club Léon.

Things will get a massive boost, though, with the host nation for this first edition. The United States, one year before co-hosting the regular World Cup in 2026, will put on the festivities. The USA always turns out in full force for summer friendlies, so there is no doubt a competition of this magnitude will be a huge event.

And with the timing just after the completion of the European season, the strongest teams should be put out on the field.

A new annual six-team event has been proposed to replace the current Club World Cup, but this will likely remain a niche event compared to the new expanded, quadrennial version.

A look to the future

While no plans have been announced past 2025, it is easy to see a future where the Club World Cup becomes one of the biggest events on the soccer calendar. The careful and purposeful selection of future host nations will be crucial. The USA is a terrific start. Imagine a 2029 competition staged in England, Germany, Spain or Brazil.

After a few editions in more established locales getting the competition on stable footing with the soccer-viewing public, then they can go back to places like Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. People will stay up late to watch something that is viewed as important and successful.

Back to the present, a 2023 world champion awaits. Urawa (Japan) advances to take on Manchester City. Fluminense of Brazil faces the winner of Al Ahly and Al-Ittihad. The final will be held at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 22. All games can be streamed live on FIFA+.

Photos: Imago