One of the last Club World Cups in its current format begins on Wednesday in Morocco, where Real Madrid will be favourites to continue Europe’s dominance of the much-maligned FIFA competition.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced on the sidelines of the World Cup in Qatar in December that an expanded Club World Cup is planned from 2025.
The bigger competition, which would feature 32 teams, has been a controversial pet project of Infantino’s for some time. A 24-team Club World Cup, involving eight European sides, had been due to take place in China in 2021 only to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
World football’s governing body is yet to reveal any further details of the plans, but global players’ union FIFPro has already complained of Infantino making the announcement “unilaterally without seriously consulting…with the players”.
For now, the Club World Cup limps on with just seven teams, including the six continental champions.
After five consecutive editions in the Middle East it returns to Morocco, which hosted the tournament in 2013 and 2014, and Real will be expected to become the 10th consecutive European winners.
Real, the reigning European champions, have claimed the title four times, including in Morocco in 2014.
Real will enter in the semi-finals on February 8 and will play in Rabat against either CONCACAF champions Seattle Sounders, Egyptian giants Al Ahly or New Zealand’s Auckland City, the champions of Oceania.
If they win, Carlo Ancelotti’s side will advance to the final on February 11.
The other semi-final will see last year’s Copa Libertadores winners Flamengo take on either Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia or home hopes Wydad Casablanca.
Widely dismissed as an irrelevance in Europe, the competition is considered far more prestigious in the rest of the world, a chance for their best sides to pit themselves against giants like Real.
Brazilian clubs have won the Club World Cup four times, most recently through Corinthians in 2012. Wydad will be hoping to become the first African club to triumph.
The host nation is always represented, but Wydad also won last year’s CAF Champions League, and so Al Ahly –- the team they beat in the final –- have been invited to take part as well.
Walid Regragui led Wydad to that continental title before taking Morocco on a historic run to the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar.
“It’s nice for Morocco — particularly after the World Cup we had — for people to see that there’s football here, there are fans, and there are beautiful stadiums. It’s going to be fantastic for our country,” Regragui told FIFA.com
The competition kicks off on Wednesday when Al Ahly –- the record 10-time African champions who have finished third at the last two Club World Cups –- play Auckland City in Tangier.
The tournament will see a refereeing first after the International Football Association Board, the sport’s lawmakers, approved a trial that will allow fans in the stadium to hear officials explain decisions taken after VAR reviews.