There was once a time when there was little to choose between South American and European domestic football. Stars of the Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay national teams often plied their trade on their home continent, and some even spent their entire careers there.
The situation is very different these days. European clubs are now far wealthier than their rivals from across the Atlantic, and they can consequently sign players from South America at an ever-younger age. It is no longer uncommon for 16-year-olds to make the journey from Buenos Aires to Barcelona, Montevideo to Milan, or Porto Alegre to Porto.
The best example of this power shift in action can be found by analysing results from the Intercontinental Cup and Club World Cup. The latter succeeded the former in 2005, replacing a single tie between the champions of Europe and South America with a mini-tournament that also includes representatives from Asia, Africa, North and Central America, and Oceania.
In the Intercontinental Cup era, which began with Real Madrid’s victory over Penarol in 1960, European teams were triumphant 21 times compared to 22 victories for South American sides. It was, to all intents and purposes, an even contest.
Sao Paulo and Internacional beat Liverpool and Barcelona respectively in the first two years of the revamped Club World Cup. After that, however, Europe began to assert its dominance. In the 13 editions since then, the South American competitor has triumphed on just one occasion – Corinthians’ backs-to-the-wall defeat of Chelsea in 2012. In 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2018, the South American outfit did not even make the final.
That is even more galling given the disparity between how seriously the competition tends to be taken on both sides of the Atlantic. For European clubs and fans, it is little more than an inconvenience. For those in South America, it is the highlight of the season.
FIFA have recognised the need for reform. Last year’s final between Liverpool and Flamengo – a 1-0 win for the Reds thanks to Roberto Firmino’s goal – was the penultimate Club World Cup of its kind. From 2021, the tournament will expand from seven to 24 teams.
The original plan was for the competition to be held in June and July next year, although that is likely to change after the European Championship and Copa America were both pushed back to around that time.
Whenever it does get under way, the Club World Cup will be staged in China. It is clear that money is a big part of the reason behind the expansion, with FIFA determined to get its hands on the type of revenue that is routinely gobbled up by the UEFA Champions League, the most lucrative club competition on the planet.
Europe will send eight teams to the tournament, while South America will have six representatives. It is unclear at this stage how seriously they will take it, but many managers and players within the game must be scratching their heads at the decision to enlarge a competition at a time when fixture congestion is already a serious problem. Yet even if major European sides would rather be elsewhere, it is highly likely that one of them will leave China with the trophy. That is simply the nature of global football in the 21st century.