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The Club World Cup: What is it and Why is it Important?

The Club World Cup: What is it and Why is it Important?

Sometimes, the ongoing cycle of club and international football can seem endless. In the last few seasons, fixtures across the world's top competitions have become increasingly congested, an issue that's only been heightened since global sport was disrupted by the Covid pandemic. The game-to-game grind for elite managers is relentless, with Premier League on the weekend, Champions League or domestic cup games on weekday evenings, plus for some teams, the odd super cup competition, for example The Community Shield.

But where does the Club World Cup fit into the picture? It certainly doesn't have the same importance to players and coaches as competitions like the Champions League, but its role within football is still significant. Ultimately, this is a competition that has received a little bit more coverage and attention in recent seasons, and given the top-level teams featured in the tournament, that's hardly a surprise.

In this guide to the Club World Cup, we'll answer the question: What is the Club World Cup? We''ll explain the format of the cup and how teams can qualify for it, and we'll take you through the history of the competition, as well as looking at the clubs that have registered the most success in the Club World Cup.

What is the Club World Cup and how do you qualify for it?

The Club World Cup is an international men's football club competition, organised by FIFA. It was first contested in 2000 as the FIFA Club World Championship, before the name was changed in 2006.

Currently, the competition format involves seven teams, with each of the world's seven football-playing continents being represented. The seven competitors include the winners of each of these tournaments: the AFC Champions League (Asia), the CAF Champions League (Africa), the CONCACAF Champions League (North, Central America and Caribbean), the CONMEBOL Libertadores (South America), the OFC Champions League (Oceania), and the UEFA Champions League (Europe). The final competitor is the host nation's national champions (the hosts change each year, with Morocco staging the 2022 tournament).

The cup hosts enter at the earliest stage of the competition, contesting a play-off against the Oceania champions for a spot in the quarter-finals alongside the Asia, Africa, and North American champions. The quarter-final winners then face the European and South American champions, who enter the tournament at a later stage to reflect the greater level of quality generally seen in these leagues. After the two semi-finals are played, a final will decide the winner of the Club World Cup.

Generally, the whole tournament will take place over a period of around two weeks. The point at which this happens in the calendar can vary, depending on various factors including where the Club World Cup is being hosted (last year, the hosting of the Qatar World Cup in November and December had an impact, pushing the 2022 tournament back to February 2023).

History of the Club World Cup

Association football has a long and illustrious history, from its formal roots in the private schools and colleges of Victorian England, to its wide resonance in working-class communities across the country during the 20th century, all the way to its present day image of uber wealth and glamour. However, the Club World Cup in its current format is a relatively recent addition to the sport, in the grand scheme of things.

The first-ever Club World Cup was contested in 2000. However, different versions of the competition have existed over the years, with the oldest dating back to the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the idea of a world championship between different football clubs was first introduced in 1887, when FA Cup winners Aston Villa beat Scottish Cup winners Hibernian (at the time, these were the only two national competitions). Subsequent games between the English and Scottish league champions eventually led towards the first attempts at creating a global club tournament in 1909 and 1911. Named the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, this early global football championship was held in Italy and contested between English, Italian, German, and Swiss clubs, with English amateurs West Auckland winning both competitions.

It wasn't until the 1950s that world football's governing body FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) seriously considered the idea of hosting a global football tournament, after the Brazilian FA-organised 1951 Copa Rio game between Palmeiras and Juventus proved extremely popular amongst fans. Other unofficial tournaments such as the Pequena Copa del Mundo (Spanish for "Small World Cup") were cropping up around the world, and in 1960 UEFA created the Intercontinental Cup, which pitted the European champions against the winners of the Copa Libertadores, their South American equivalent. However, FIFA did not endorse the tournament, forcing it to be marketed as a "private friendly match". Rebranded as the Toyota Cup by the Japanese motor firm in 1980, the competition continued to be shunned by FIFA until the 21st century, when the world governing body finally took control.

First sketched out in 1993, the inaugural 2000 edition of the Club World Cup followed years of preparation from FIFA. However, this would be the only competition until 2005, as a range of factors including the collapse of FIFA's marketing partner International Sport and Leisure (ISL) caused repeated cancellations. Finally, the merging of the Intercontinental Cup with the Club World Championship, and its renaming as the FIFA Club World Cup in 2006, created the format that we're now familiar with. Since then, the competition has been played out every single year, with winners including Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Chelsea.

Who Has Won the Club World Cup Most?

Since its reorganisation in the early 2000s, the Club World Cup has been dominated by European sides. For example, the 2022 winners were Real Madrid, who beat Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal 5-3 in the final, while the previous two winners were Liverpool (who beat Brazilians Palmeiras 2-1 in the final), and Bayern Munich (who defeated Mexican outfit Tigres UANL 1-0 to complete a sextuple in 2020). The early days of the tournament, when the trophy was passed from Corinthians to fellow Brazilians Sao Paulo, and then to Internacional, seem to be long gone…

Given this European dominance within the competition, you might not be surprised to learn that the club that holds the record for the most Club World Cup titles is Real Madrid. The Spanish giants have won the competition on five occasions, and their country is the most successful in the cup's history, with La Liga teams becoming world champions on eight different occasions. This is part of a broader story of triumph from Madrid on the global stage — the club has also won 14 European Cup trophies, more than any other team has managed. 

That being said, it will be interesting to see how the tournament develops in the future, as nations and clubs in the Middle East continue to invest more and more money into football, and countries such as UAE and Qatar continue to host the Club World Cup on a regular basis. Could the balance of power shift once more, away from Europe? Only time will tell.

Now, we've highlighted the team that has been most successful in the Club World Cup since its restructuring around two decades ago, but before we leave you, it's worth fleshing out all the winners, runners-up, and hosts that have shaped the path of the competition during that time.

Club World Cup Winners List

Here's a comprehensive list of all the Club World Cup winners since the merging of the tournament with the Intercontinental Cup:

2000 (Host: Brazil) - Corinthians (Runners-up: Vasco de Gama) 

2005 (H: Japan) - Sao Paulo (Runners-up: Liverpool)

2006 (H: Japan) - Internacional (Runners-up: Barcelona)

2007 (H: Japan) - Milan (Runners-up: Boca Juniors)

2008 (H: Japan) - Manchester United (Runners-up: LDU Quito)

2009 (H: UAE) - Barcelona (Runners-up: Estudiantes LP)

2010 (H: UAE) - Internazionale (Runners-up: TP Mazembe)

2011 (H: Japan) - Barcelona (Runners-up: Santos)

2012 (H: Japan) - Corinthians (Runners-up: Chelsea)

2013 (H: Morocco) - Bayern Munich (Runners-up: Raja Casablanca)

2014 (H: Morocco) - Real Madrid (Runners-up: San Lorenzo)

2015 (H: Japan) - Barcelona (Runners-up: River Plate)

2016 (H: Japan) - Real Madrid (Runners-up: Kashima Antlers)

2017 (H: UAE) - Real Madrid (Runners-up: Gremio)

2018 (H: UAE) - Real Madrid (Runners-up: Al-Ain)

2019 (H: Qatar) - Liverpool (Runners-up: Flamengo)

2020 (H: Qatar) - Bayern Munich (Runners-up: Tigres UANL)

2021 (H: UAE) - Chelsea (Runners-up: Palmeiras)

2022 (H: Morocco) - Real Madrid (Runners-up: Al-Hilal)

Over the years, a clear pattern has developed: European sides have become increasingly successful, and while South American clubs achieved multiple wins in the early years of the tournament, the dynamic has shifted over time. With Real Madrid winning five of the last nine competitions, certain clubs are racking up a serious record in the Club World Cup. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next edition of the tournament. 

Are you interested in finding out more about some of the lesser-known tournaments that make up the rich portrait of global club football? Well, you're in the right place. A good place to start would be with our in-depth guide on The Community Shield: What It Is and Why It's Important.

Or, if you're more interested in the political and legal issues that shape the global game behind the scenes, you'll probably want to check out our recent article on The Bosman Ruling, a court decision that has played a major role in influencing global transfer activities in modern football.