The Club World Cup That Never Was (2001)

All this talk about football being postponed or cancelled entirely as a result of the Corona Virus crisis made me think of one of the stranger forgotten tournaments of my lifetime – the 2001 FIFA Club World Cup.

The FIFA Club World cup trophy

For a number of years I thought it was just a glitch in Championship Manager 2000/01, at the end of the season this tournament appeared in the schedule, seemingly out of nowhere. It was only years later that I discovered it was in fact real and had come within a couple of months of being played.

So let’s dive in and take a look at the strange story of the tournament that never was!

A Brief History

The Intercontinental Cup Trophy

The first attempt at creating a worldwide club competition was the Intercontinental Cup, which from the early 1960’s was played between the Champions of Europe and South America.

A great idea in theory but the 1960’s encounters are mostly remembered for the escalating violence on the pitch, mostly when an Argentinian side was involved. As a result, a lot of European teams declined to participate, one such occasion meant that Atlético Madrid became the only side to win the World Club title without winning their own continental championship.

After 1980, the competition was streamlined, becoming a one-off match at a neutral venue which, thanks to a sponsorship deal with Toyota, would always be Tokyo.

The competition enjoyed reasonable success there running independent of FIFA, so it was only a matter of time before the world governing body tried to get a piece of the action. Their eagerness grew even more with the success of UEFA’s expansion of the Champions League in the 1990’s and so in 1999, they announced plans for the first truly global Club World Championship.

A False Start in Brazil

The 2000 Club World Championships are not very fondly remembered in the UK. In fact they would probably barely be remembered at all if it wasn’t for the fact this is the competition Manchester United pulled out of the 1999/2000 FA Cup to compete in, thus kicking off the decline of the “greatest cup competition in the world”.

In fairness to United, they were placed under immense pressure to do so by the FA and the British government, both of whom were concerned about the effect snubbing FIFA would have on England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup, especially as they were up against a bid from Germany and team in line to replace United were Bayern Munich.

United went to Brazil and largely failed to impress, their three games being most notable for a David Beckham red card and Gary Neville playing the two most incisive through balls of his career, unfortunately the recipients were Vasco da Gama’s strike pairing Edmundo and Romario.

The tournament ended with an all-Brazilian final as Corinthians defeated Vasco on penalties and despite widespread indifference throughout much of the footballing world, FIFA decided it had been enough of a success to try again – only this time bigger! Despite this there was no room for an invitation for the defending champions, who would have to wait until 2012 for their next tilt at world domination.

The Format

The expanded competition included twelve teams, split into three groups of four.

The winner of each group would advance to the semi finals along with the best runner-up with the final taking place at the Santiago Bernabéu. Oh and there was also a third place play-off. Because why not?

Group A

Estadio Riazor

Group A would arguably have been the most interesting in the competition, pitting the 2000 Spanish champions Deportivo La Coruña against the 2000 Copa Libertadores winners Boca Juniors.

Depor were still in their “SuperDepor” era and a year on from their La Liga title, were arguably an even better side, having added the likes of Diego Tristan, Walter Pandiani and Juan Carlos Valeron to that side. 

Boca meanwhile, were in the midst of a golden era of their own. Under Carlos Bianchi, they won both the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup, inspired by the languid playmaking of Juan Roman Riquelme and the goals of Martín Palermo. Palermo departed after the latter of those victories, having scored twice in the final against Real Madrid, but the team was still good enough to retain their Libertadores title in 2001.

The other two sides in the group were Zamalek of Egypt, winners of the 2000 CAF Cup Winners’ Cup, and the sole representative from Oceania, Australia’s Wollongong Wolves, winners of the 2001 OFC Champions League.

Considering the strength of the European and South American representatives, it’s hard to imagine that these teams wouldn’t just been there to make up the numbers.

All but one of the games were to be played in A Coruña’s Estadio Riazor, with the other going to a slightly more unexpected venue, the Estadio Multiusos de San Lazaro in Santiago de Compostela.

San Lazaro

The home of SD Compostela, who in the summer of 2001 had just been relegated to Segunda B, would have hosted one of the final group games – the one between Boca and Wollongong Wolves, which would probably have been, by some distance, the most random fixture to ever be played at the ground.

Group B

The Vicente Calderón

The second group would have been based in Madrid, with all but one of the games taking place at Atlético Madrid’s Estadio Vicente Calderón.

Here, 1999 Libertadores winners Palmeiras would have finally been able to compete in the Club World Cup, having not been invited to the 2000 edition, the 1998 winners, Rio’s Vasco Da Gama, being preferred instead.

While not boasting the household names of Boca, they were an extremely strong team, one which had just lost out in an epic Libertadores semi-final tie with them. The manager who had guided them to the 1999 title, Luis Felipe Scolari, had departed to take charge of Brazil, while their most high-profile player was arguably goalkeeper Marcos, who would go on to be Scolari’s number one for the selecão in the 2002 World Cup.

The European representatives in Group B were Galatasaray, who had won both the UEFA Cup and Super Cup in 2000, though this would have been a very different side from the one which won those trophies, with numerous players including Hakan Sükür, Gheorge Hagi, Ümit Davala and Cláudio Taffarel having departed in the intervening time.

They did still boast a significant proportion of the Turkey squad which would go on to finish third at the World Cup a year later though.

Also in Group B were CD Olimpia from Honduras, runners-up in the 2000 CONCACAF Champions League and Al Hilal from Riyhad, the 2000 Asian Super Cup winners.

Group C

The Bernabéu

Group C was also based entirely in Madrid with all but one of the games taking place in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

Real Madrid would have been expected to waltz through their group.

Although they had relinquished their European title to Bayern Munich earlier in the year, they had won La Liga in some style.

And this was of course one of the most star-studded line-ups in the history of football – the famous galácticos. Raúl, Figo and Roberto Carlos were already there and that summer they had just paid a world record transfer fee to sign Zinedine Zidane from Juventus.

Their opponents, 1999 Asian Champions Jubilo Iwata from Japan, CONCACAF Champions LA Galaxy and Ghana’s Hearts of Oak, the 2000 African Champions would have been expected to just be cannon fodder for los blancos.

What Happened?

On May 18 2001, just over two months before the tournament was due to kick off with the glamour fixture between Depor and Boca at the Riazor, FIFA announced that the tournament would be cancelled.

One of the reasons given was fixture congestion and a clash with international tournaments in the summer. Given that the tournament was due to start a day before the final of the Copa America, it’s hard to believe that this hadn’t been considered as a factor earlier. The Brazilian and Argentinian clubs would have had to travel without a number of key players, while it’s likely that Depor and Madrid would have been missing some of their stars too.

Perhaps a more pertinent reason for the sudden cancellation was finance.

FIFA were reportedly having trouble attracting sponsors and international TV broadcasters for the tournament and ticket sales were rumoured to be low.

Anyone who has lived in Spain knows that in the warmest months of July and August, Spanish people decamp en masse from the cities and head to holiday homes by the coast or their family village in the mountains in search of cooler climes. Attendances at the first couple of rounds of the La Liga season at the end of August are traditionally lower than average, so the idea of trying to fill the Bernabéu for Real Madrid v LA Galaxy at the height of summer seems a little foolhardy.

But it seems like the main reason was the collapse of ISL, FIFA’s international marketing partner, which filed for bankruptcy early in 2001 having run up debts of $300 million. The Club World Cup was collateral damage in this. They announced the competition would be rescheduled for 2003 but it never was.

In 2005 the competition did return but in a more truncated format, a straight knockout only involving the champions of the seven confederations with the European and South American sides given byes to the semi finals. This was played in mid-December, thus replacing the Intercontinental Cup in the football calendar.

FIFA has never truly given up on the dream of a proper Club World Cup, with current president Gianni Infantino being a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the idea.

The first edition of this new 24-team tournament is scheduled to take place in China next summer, though given recent world events, it feels likely that it will join the Spain tournament on the scrap heap of history.

The Club World Cup trophy on display in Real Madrid’s museum

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.