Even by the high standards of the UEFA Champions League, last Wednesday's group-stage finale offered an impressive slate of action. A three-way race for second place in Group E ended with Manchester City through thanks to an away win at AS Roma and the thrashing CSKA Moscow took from group winners Bayern Munich. Titans Barcelona and Paris St. Germain clashed for the top spot in Group F in front of 82,570 at Camp Nou, and the names on the scoresheet of the hosts' 3-1 victory were Messi, Neymar, Suárez, and Ibrahimović.
And then there was the match played 700 miles to the southwest, in the Moroccan city of Rabat, between Moghreb Athletic Tétouan and semi-pro New Zealand side Auckland City FC. In a two-thirds-full Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium, the two clubs faced off in a play-in game for the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup, soccer's tournament of champions of the tournaments of champions. In the narrowest possible sense, the clash between the Kiwis and the Moroccans represented a higher order of competition than the intra-UEFA contests being played on the other side of the Mediterranean. In every other way imaginable, it did not.
The idea of the Club World Cup is simple: take the winners of the six continental champions leagues and pit them against each other. Chances are, in the time it took you to read that sentence, you've thought of a half-dozen reasons why this wouldn't be feasible or interesting. But you, and this is good, are not a member of the FIFA Executive Committee.
The slight favorites in Wednesday's match were Moghreb Tétouan, currently sitting in ninth place in Morocco's Botola Pro—something like the fiftieth-ranked league in the world—and given a crack at making the quarterfinals as reigning champions of the host country. Auckland City, who play a four-month season in New Zealand's eight-team ASB Premiership, qualified for a fourth consecutive time as club champions of Oceania, having edged Vanuatuan amateur side Amicale FC in the OFC Champions League final.
It wasn't exactly a recipe for a barn-burner, and the on-field result was somehow even bleaker than expected—an excruciatingly dull, resolutely goalless stalemate of hapless attacking moves and amoebic defensive shapes, missed sitters and foul throws, back-pass after back-pass after back-pass after back-pass. The brave, anonymous Brit doing solo commentary on my Fox Soccer feed tried to remain constructive: "He was facing the wrong way. That was the problem there." After 120 minutes of agony, Auckland City prevailed in a penalty shootout that ended, appropriately, on a miss.
The Kiwis managed another upset of an African club on Saturday, beating Algeria's ES Sétif to advance to Tuesday's semifinal, where it's highly probable that they will lose to Argentinian club San Lorenzo. It's highly probable, also, that Real Madrid will defeat Mexico's Cruz Azul, and that for the ninth time out of the 11 Club World Cups played to date, the South American champion will face the European champion in the final. The only certainty is that no matter what happens, no one will care. By Saturday afternoon, the Club World Cup will have come and gone, and casual fans and aficionados alike will have remained barely or not at all aware of its existence.
But even mentioning fans in the context of the Club World Cup seems like missing the point. This tournament made sense in Japan, where it has been held six times, and it made even more sense in Abu Dhabi, which hosted in 2009 and 2010. It's exactly the kind of globalized live-action collector's item that countries like the UAE love to buy and organizations like FIFA love to sell. It's another opportunity for the game's governing élite to boost sponsorship revenue, award themselves lucrative services contracts, and—since this is FIFA we're talking about—score some designer watches and priceless fine art and maybe condone a bit of slavery along the way. The soccer is incidental, and feels like it.
Check out the crowd at this exhilarating Club World Cup match.
And so even when the Club World Cup works, it doesn't really work. In 2009, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona arrived in Abu Dhabi holding five trophies from Spanish and European competition; no club had ever won six. Here was as compelling and clear-cut a narrative as the tournament could ever hope for.
Barça wanted it. Guardiola wanted it. They got Argentina's Estudiantes in the final, fell behind in the first half, and pressed furiously and unsuccessfully for a goal through most of the second. Finally, in the 89th minute, they got their equalizer, and in extra time Messi fired home the winner, sealing Barcelona's historic sextuple. It was exciting. It was high-stakes. The best team in the world won, and the best player in the world scored the winning goal.
And… what, exactly? Did anyone need to see a victory over Estudiantes to understand that Barça circa 2009 were the best club in the world at the time, and quite possibly ever? Would anyone have doubted it if they had somehow lost?
There's nothing new about this particular problem, and American fans, especially, have long felt comfortable risking the recognition of true greatness for the guaranteed reward of playoff drama. But at the Club World Cup—brief, lopsided, caught in the no-man's land between exhibition and competition—the contradiction is laid untenably bare. Why bother with a half-hearted, frequently boring coin flip to decide whether or not to acknowledge what we already know?
Maybe there are those who look at this and find it within themselves to see a gestating World Champions League, the neo-Pangaean pastime of our techno-utopian future: Arsenal's liveried supersonic jet doing Mach 3 to Pretoria for a midweek clash at Mamelodi Sundowns; Guangzhou Evergrande hopping on the Trans-Eurasian Hyperloop for a daunting second leg at Fenerbahçe; watching via neural implant as L.A. Galaxy and Spartak Moscow face off in the final somewhere off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the world's first carbon-neutral hover-stadium.
But the present reality of the Club World Cup seems like a depressingly appropriate tournament for our times: a competition based on global concentrations of capital and not so quaint an idea as the nation-state, capricious and chaotic but deeply, unmistakably unequal, highly remunerative to a select few and conspicuously unbound from the collective interest that in theory makes it possible. The good news is that—at least when it comes to soccer—we haven't fallen for it, yet.