Soccer

Liverpool captures first Club World Cup title

AP

After tens of billions of dollars spent on infrastructure, and skepticism over this tiny gas-rich nation’s suitability as host of a major sporting event, a World Cup has finally been handed out in Qatar.

It was Liverpool lifting FIFA’s lesser-regarded Club World Cup trophy on Saturday night. In three years, the biggest prize in soccer will be handed out in a stadium yet to be completed.

The Club World Cup, which ended Saturday with Roberto Firmino sealing Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Flamengo in extra time, was the first major international test of Qatar’s readiness. With a 45,000-strong crowd packed into Khalifa Stadium, Qatar has shown it can fill a venue with sports fans — unlike at the track and field world championships earlier this year.

“Everybody was for different reasons on the edge pretty much, but I saw so many sensationally good performances and I’m really happy of course for our supporters,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said. “The atmosphere in the stadium was great.”

But it is a stadium touched by the welfare concerns that have dogged Qatar’s preparations since being awarded the main 32-team World Cup in 2010 by FIFA. In January 2017, a British worker plunged to his death during the construction phase in conditions later deemed to be dangerous.

This was a Club World Cup trip also tinged in tragedy for the losing finalists from Brazil. When fire engulfed a dormitory at Flamengo’s academy in Brazil in February, 10 players — all between 14 and 16 years old — died.

“It was a very sad moment in Flamengo’s history and, I believe, in Brazilian football as well,” midfielder Everton Ribeiro said in Doha. “Lives were lost, dreams were lost.”

Flamengo was ordered by a Rio de Janeiro judge earlier this month to pay the equivalent of $2,500 a month to the families of 10 victims and three injured players. Flamengo, which appealed the decision, is already paying families about $1,200 a month.

“If the situation is settled with the families, as soon as possible, including the support that Flamengo is already giving, it will be better for everybody,” Ribeiro said.

Flamengo’s grief was followed by success not achieved by a Brazilian side since Pele’s Santos in 1963.

The club won the Brazilian championship on Nov. 24, one day after clinching its first Copa Libertadores title since 1981, a continental triumph that set up a reunion with Liverpool.

When the European champions and South American champions met in a single-game version of the Club World Cup 38 years ago, Flamengo beat Liverpool 3-0.

Soccer has tilted in Europe’s favor over South America since the 1981 Intercontinental Cup, but the very staging of this seven-team Club World Cup in the Persian Gulf shows where so much of the wealth now comes from in the sport.

It was a Brazilian player, prized away from his homeland to Europe as a 19-year-old, initially by Hoffenheim in Germany, who settled this final for Liverpool in the 99th minute.

Firmino was still inside his own half when captain Jordan Henderson launched the defense-splitting pass that set Liverpool on the path to glory. As Firmino raced through Flamengo territory unchallenged, Sadio Mane held up the ball received from Henderson. When Firmino reached the penalty area, Mane squared to the Brazilian, who took three touches to control the ball past defender Rodrigo Caio before knocking it into the net.

Firmino also struck in the semifinal victory over Monterrey on Wednesday, giving him two goals in as many games in Khalifa Stadium, having only netted once in the previous 16 games for Liverpool in all competitions.

“I couldn’t be more happy for him that he could score that goal because . . . (of) what this competition means to Brazil, to South American people,” Klopp said.

After netting the Club World Cup winner, Firmino raced away in celebration, ripping off his jersey and leaping into the air.

Firmino and his teammates will have to wait some time to attach FIFA’s gold Champions Badge to their jerseys. Liverpool anticipates it will only be allowed to be worn in the Champions League, which resumes in February, rather than weekly in the Premier League.

It may have to settle with lifting the Premier League trophy in May for the first time.

Liverpool’s pursuit of the league crown was helped by Leicester losing to Manchester City on Saturday.

A domestic title drought stretching back to 1990 for the 18-time English champion looks likely to end with Liverpool holding a 10-point lead over Leicester ahead of Thursday’s game against its second-place rival.

“Liverpool are enjoying their best time in their decade,” Flamengo coach Jorge Jesus said. “They played a tremendous match and Flamengo were excellent also.

“We were a match for Liverpool. I’m fully pleased with what Flamengo have done. Brazilian clubs in future will be contenders to European clubs and we have exhibited that today.”