Chelsea seeks world domination

December 11, 2012

FIFA’s biggest club trophy, The Club World Cup, kicked off with Sanfrecce Hiroshima defeating Auckland to set up a test against Al-Ahly. Doesn’t sound thrilling, does it?

We’ll grant you that. And no, we’re not going to snow you and pretend this is the Champions League. But this year, the Club World Cup is important, and has a lot of meaning for one team in particular. That club is none other than Chelsea, and they are a side that cannot afford to be humiliated in Japan.

The Blues are in free-fall, with an unpopular new manager, a slumping season and an owner with a hair-trigger. Losing in Japan would be unthinkable -- and Rafa Benitez might well pay the price.

The Club World Cup is something pretty rare in the sports world: this is a tournament that the likes of Chelsea hate to play in, and it’s not because of a packed schedule. It’s because they are afraid to lose to some so-called "minnows." And that makes this tournament very interesting indeed.


Chelsea and Corinthians of course are the marquee draws in Japan over the next two weeks. Neither team can afford to be brought low by the likes of Ulsan Hyundai or Monterrey. But that happens here more often than you’d think. This is a tournament full of opportunity for teams that sit on the periphery of the soccer map. Clubs from New Zealand, South Korea, Egypt and Mexico have a real opportunity here to make some noise.

Doubt it? You shouldn’t: it’s exactly what happened two years ago when tiny TP Mazembe from Congo shocked Brazilian powerhouses Internacional to make the finals. And, two years before that, when Ecuador’s LDU Quito faced Manchester United in the finals. Who’s to say this isn’t Monterrey’s year?

Fear of the upset has motivated more than one team: the 2007 AC Milan and Carlo Ancelotti were under heavy pressure to win after just squeaking by Urawa Red Diamonds in the semis, and Ancelotti was visibly relieved when Clarence Seedorf scored the only goal of that game with twenty minutes to play. More recently, Barcelona were pilloried at home when they were downed by Internacional in 2006. There’s no shame in losing to a Brazilian team, but this was at a time when that league was seen to be at a low ebb.

There’s also fear for the big teams because there is more history at play than the Club World Cup is ever given credit for having. This is actually the fifth tournament in a continuum that stretches back to the Lipton Cup of the early 1900s that aimed to crown the best club side on the planet. As you may have gathered from the sheer number of attempts, the idea really hasn’t caught fire yet.

The most successful tournament of this type was the old Intercontinental Cup, which from 1960-2004 matched the best teams in Europe against the best in South America. That tournament used to be a fun home and away event, with legs between the San Siro and the Maracana; Hampden Park and the Cylinder and La Bombonera and Wildparkstadion. (Talk about a Grand Tour.)

Then, reality bit in the 1980s and it was only with the intervention of Toyota that the tournament survived, as a one-leg, one-off game in Tokyo or Yokohama. There were some great matchups in the Toyota Cup, but nowhere near as much color.

The current format is indeed better – it’s a quick little tournament that rotates between two underserved soccer markets, Asia and the Middle East. And believe it or not, there are some good teams here not named Chelsea or Corinthians.

Monterrey is rightly a CONCACAF powerhouse, fielding Aldo de Nigris and Humberto Suazo up top and the fine Jonathan Orozco in the nets. Runners-up in last year’s Clausura and knocked out by this year’s finalists Tijuana in the quarters, Monterrey have been consistently dangerous over the last several years in both Mexico and regional competition.

Al-Ahly are one of Egypt’s most storied sides and have one of the greatest players never to grace a European side in the 34-year old attacking midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika. They also come in with a heavy burden: the entire 2011-12 Egyptian season was cancelled following the Port Said stadium disaster, which saw their fans and players attacked by fans of rival Al-Masry. Seventy four people lost their lives and Egyptian soccer is just beginning to come back to life.

And of course, we do have Chelsea, which right now is just trying to mitigate the pressure and stop the bleeding. Their fans will deny it, and many of them on this continent will sleep through their games, but if – or when – they lose in Asia, you’ll see just how seriously the Blues actually do take this this little Cup.