MATT BARLOW: English football rolls its eyes at the Club World Cup… but just wait until next year! – PLUS former Spurs and Liverpool talent spotter joins top agency

English club football has never found a place in its heart for a world title fight.

Not during Manchester United’s bruising duels with Estudiantes of Argentina or the Toyota years in Japan.

Not when Sir Alex Ferguson’s Treble winners swapped the FA Cup for Rio de Janeiro and the launch of a new format, which spluttered into life this century and settled into the calendar as a pre-Christmas inconvenience for any Premier League participants.

Sure, it’s a useful boast if you win and Pep Guardiola would love to complete the set with Manchester City this year.

Modern owners will milk it for all it is worth but the English audience has always viewed it suspiciously, like some sort of handicapping system designed to make the defence of more meaningful titles that bit tougher.

Liverpool celebrate their win over Brazilina side Flamengo in the Club World Cup final in 2019

The Club World Cup starts on Tuesday with Oceanian champions Auckland City against Al Ittihad representing the host nation, inevitably Saudi Arabia, for the right to take on African champions Al Ahly of Egypt. The winners of that will face City in a semi-final next week.

Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan tackle North American champions Leon of Mexico and the winners play South American champions Fluminense of Brazil in the other semi-final.

The tournament concludes with the final on Friday week and will be the last of its kind.

Few will mourn its loss until the oversized summer jamboree of a successor rumbles into view in June 2025, at which point English football will groan collectively, tut and roll its eyes while managers try to figure out who has the energy for an end-of-season jaunt to the United States for a tournament involving seven more games for the finalists.

Also at this point, it will cease to be anything much to do with who is the best club side in the world because the entire concept will become another profit-driven TV bonanza.

Twelve of the 32 teams involved will come from Europe and they will continue to dominate.

A challenge may develop from Saudi Arabia but Europeans have won the last 10 titles and the South American force has faded. They have not won it since Corinthians beat a listless Chelsea in 2012 and made only two of the last five finals.

Hardly surprising when its top talent is lured to Europe as soon as players are old enough to leave home, but a shame because the South Americans fired the imagination when Santos beat Benfica in 1962, pitching Pele against Eusebio. Back then, it was a two-legged shootout between the champions of two continents.

The second leg in Lisbon when the Brazilians won 5-2 has gone into history as one the finest displays by that famous Santos team. Pele scored three to reinforce his status as the world’s greatest.

They were prolific tourists but here was a precious chance for a European audience to see Santos in competitive action and vice-versa.

2022 winners Chelsea have a ticket to the 32-team tournament in the summer of 2025

2022 winners Chelsea have a ticket to the 32-team tournament in the summer of 2025

The Brazil club defended its title in 1963 by beating AC Milan in a decider held at the Maracana two days after the second leg in Brazil had tied the aggregate at 6-6. Those two games in Rio drew 250,000-plus people.

Sixty years on and Santos were relegated from Brazil’s top flight last week for the first time in their 111-year history.

European clubs started opting out of the Intercontinental Cup in the 1970s, the unfortunate legacy of two violent finals involving Estudiantes of Argentina. Manchester United lost over two legs, with Nobby Stiles and George Best provoked into retaliation and sent off.

Disgusted, the Old Trafford crowd responded with a barrage of missiles.

The Milan final was worse. The Argentines, beaten 3-0 in Italy in the first leg, turned the second leg into a shameful attack dubbed ‘La Bombonera Massacre’ and three Estudiantes players served time in jail.

Nestor Combin, Milan’s Argentina-born France international, was carried off covered in blood after an assault by Ramon Suarez and arrested as he left the stadium on charges of draft-dodging.

The Italians spent the night scouring police stations of Buenos Aires before they were able to free Combin.

Little wonder the European appetite for the fixture was fading. Ajax, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were among those who declined in the Seventies, before it was revived as the Toyota Cup, a one-off game in Japan with a new car awarded to the Man of the Match.

Zico still drives his Toyota Celica around Rio having vowed never to sell the prize won when Flamengo beat Liverpool 3-0 but the contest always meant more to the South Americans, a chance to defy European wealth.

Forest, Aston Villa and Liverpool (twice) all lost without scoring a goal. Roy Keane’s winner for Manchester United against Palmeiras was the first goal by an English club in 31 years since Willie Morgan’s against Estudiantes in 1968.

Roy Keane scored the winner for Manchester United in victory over Palmeiras in the 1999 final

Roy Keane scored the winner for Manchester United in victory over Palmeiras in the 1999 final

The expansion to include teams from all continents gave the title of world champions true authenticity while throwing more games and more travel into a crowded calendar and the next step complicates this further still.

It will be every four years not annually but surrenders its main point, to herald the best club side in the world at that moment in time. It will be just another bunch of games.

Chelsea have a ticket to the 32-team tournament in the summer of 2025 by virtue of the fact they won the Champions League in 2021 and yet of the 23 players on the team sheet against City in Porto only one (Reece James) started against Everton.

English football, meanwhile, continues to shrug its shoulders at something happening in a distant time zone.

The competition has come a long way and gone nowhere.

Agencies lead the way 

Former Tottenham and Liverpool talent spotter Steve Hitchen’s move to join Unique Sports Group, one of the country’s leading agencies, as director of football illustrates the industry’s shifting landscape. 

Agencies have become huge, sophisticated operations now boasting large recruitment departments to identify players quickly and plan their development pathways. 

From Hitchen’s angle, talent spotting for an agency will offer a more settled and secure environment than for a football club.

Coventry’s Callum O’Hare scored both goals in victory over Birmingham City on Friday night

Coventry’s Callum O’Hare scored both goals in victory over Birmingham City on Friday night

Double delight for O’Hare

Joy unbridled for Coventry’s Callum O’Hare, who scored his first goals for more than 600 days on Friday in only his second start since returning from a serious knee injury. They came against Birmingham City, the team he supported as a boy. As did his previous goal in April 2022.

Teams on the up!

Bolton and Portsmouth meet on Monday night. The top two in League One, former Premier League clubs in brilliant form with plenty of goodwill on their side as they rebuild after financial crisis. 

Bolton boss Ian Evatt has been grumbling that his players deserve more credit from the national media. 

This might have something to do with the fact Evatt is more selective than Erik ten Hag about who he talks to. 

Ethan Nwaneri (above) scored five as Arsenal Under-18s beat Crewe in the FA Youth Cup

Ethan Nwaneri (above) scored five as Arsenal Under-18s beat Crewe in the FA Youth Cup

High five for Arsenal kids

Two Arsenal teams kicked off at 5.30pm on Saturday and both were trailing 1-0 at half-time. 

Mikel Arteta’s first-team could not find a way back at Aston Villa but Jack Wilshere’s Under-18s scored seven in the second half to beat Crewe Alexandra 7-1 in the FA Youth Cup. 

Ethan Nwaneri scored five.


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