The Club World Cup undoubtedly has its flaws, but as the competition ends its long association with Japan to set up home in Morocco for the next two years, the Japanese game would do well to consider what it is losing.
Brazilian side Corinthians beat Chelsea 1-0 in Yokohama on Sunday to claim the world title for the second time, bringing the curtain down on the latest edition of a tournament that continues to divide opinion around the globe. South America regards the trophy as the ultimate prize while Europe looks upon it as little more than a curiosity, but given the balance of power that exists in the world game, it is easy to see why the competition struggles for legitimacy.
Europe’s money and concentration of talent means it is the Champions League that provides the true barometer of a club’s global standing, and any attempt to put the rest of the world on an equal footing is clearly flawed from the outset. The Club World Cup’s unbalanced field means games can suffer from embarrassing mismatches and wild lurches in quality, and the fact that only one team from outside of Europe and South America has reached the final in seven years only reinforces the image of a tournament going through the motions.
But below the surface, the event is thriving. Healthy competition between teams from Asia, North and Central America and Africa has helped raise the level across the board, and with the host nation’s domestic champion being granted entry since 2007, J. League teams have profited enormously.
Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka qualified to face AC Milan and Manchester United under the banner of Asian title-holders, but the guarantee of Japanese participation on home soil has opened priceless new doors. Kashiwa Reysol took on opposition from four different continents after entering as J. League champions last year, and the experience of playing Santos in the semifinals would not have been possible had the tournament been held elsewhere.
But it is not just on the field where Japan has benefitted. Fans get a rare chance to see elite clubs and players live in the flesh, with the prize of the official world title giving the occasion a substance that no preseason tour of Asia could ever match. The empty seats at this year’s semifinal between Chelsea and Monterrey were a disappointment, but the fact that Barcelona, Manchester United and Milan have all broken the 65,000 mark against non-South American opposition in recent years proves the enthusiasm is there.
The competition has left Japan before, spending two years in the United Arab Emirates before coming back for last year’s edition, but this time there is no guarantee it will return. The JFA has instead been pursuing a strategy of trying to bring other tournaments to Japan, and if the Women’s World Cup or a prestigious age-level event is the fruit of that policy, the governing body may well consider the payoff to have been worth it.
But Japan’s association with the world championship is a long one, beginning with the foundation of the Toyota Cup in 1980 and continuing after expansion to its present format in 2005. The competition has earned Japan a unique place in soccer history, and produced moments that have burned themselves indelibly onto the game’s collective memory.
It would be a shame if there were no more in the future.