/ 10 December 2010

The Club World Cup… In My World™.

[This is another recurring segment, called “In My World."  Every so often, usually dictated by something happening out in the world that I think could be better, I’m going to drop one of these concept bombs on you, the unsuspecting masses. Imagine me gazing rapturously out the window, playing with a doll house, or whatever gets you there; during the following, and for all future "In My World” segments, I call the shots.  The only limit to logic is my terrible, terrible avarice – or if I get hungry while I’m writing.]

The FIFA Club World Cup kicks off today, and it’s a great idea.  Get the best clubs from around the world, and play them off against each other.  It’s like a big Old Country Buffet, wherein each team is a steam tray.  Yes, I’ll grab some meatballs and red sauce.  And some lo mein.  A taco, por favor.  And some, I don’t know, some, Congolese maboke (that’s a fresh water fish cooked in large marantacee leaves, ya dummy).  Sadly, no hot dogs this year.  Maybe one day. 

The whole thing is flawed, though.  The traditions surrounding the event mean that it favors the South American and European entrants, who wait for the rest of the world’s champs to play off for the privilege of meeting them in the semifinals. I understand why it’s done (politics), but it’s not very fair and for the tournament to grow, it needs all combatants to play the same number of games.  Seeds are fine; byes (especially those based on tradition) are not. 

And also, in general, the whole tournament needs to be a bigger deal.  I mean, this is it.  The best clubs in the world.  Unless SOLAR-FA finally sends renowned eight-time Martian champion Interplanetary Mons Venus over to our world (and they won’t – politics), this is the best club soccer spectacle we’re going to be able to create here on Earth.  Finding space for the Club World Cup on the unified world calendar is already tough, but the tournament is too good an idea for it not to happen.  I will leave the date-wrangling and fixture un-congesting for another day, and to other more boring people; instead, today In My World (my world… my world… my world – did I mention the phrase is always followed by an echo? You can interpolate it from now on) I’ll break down how I think the tournament should work in the future. 

The Future: 16 Teams, Many Cuisines, & The Delicious Heartburn of Success

We need more teams, but not so many that this tournament becomes a burden on any particular club or external competition, or that it devalues the rewards of winning regional Champions Leagues.  But it needs to be 16 in order to make it worthy of crowning a champ who can be legitimately called the Champion of the World (and for snobby Uefa Champions League fans, of which I am one, to take it seriously).  So, poof:  in my world, we have a 16 team tournament with a few teams from each confederation (weighted towards the bigger ones, of course).  How do we award the spots? Like this.

3 Euro (Uefa Champs League finalists; losing semifinalists play a third-place match for the last spot)
3 South America (Copa Lib; same as above)
2 Asia (Asian CL finalists)
2 Africa (CAF CL finalists)
2 Concacaf (ConcaCL finalists)
1 Oceania (OFC Club champion)

That gets us to 13 teams.  Not a bad start, but a terrible number for a tournament any way you slice it.  And trust me, I’ve worked in a deli before – it’s all in how you slice it.  We need three more teams to get to the magic number that here in America inspires Madness™. Sweet, sweet™, madness.  (Attention NCAA lawyers: I made the ™ symbol by pressing option-2 there).

Unlike with the first 13, there’s no really worthy, mathematical way to award the last three spots.  It’s gonna be arbitrary.  The terms “at-large” and “wild card” come to mind here, but really, to me, you have to use these three spots to enhance the idea of global soccer as a continuous string of celebrations.  You have to connect past, to present, to future.  You use these three spots to give a great, big push on the ol’ FIFA horse-cart, to sustain the momentum you’re already creating with this and other competitions. 

Spot 14: the Defending Champ.  Yes, that old soccer chestnut rears its head.  Last year’s Club World Cup winner gets safe passage into this year’s competition.  It’s almost entirely fair, it’s interesting, it’ll probably be a big club, and it’s guaranteed to make the tournament more fun.

Spot 15: one spot awarded to the FA of the current FIFA World Cup holding country to award as they see fit.  This – and again, it’s my world, so I can say it – is genius.  Spain?  ¿You are World Cup champs, yes?  As a little bonus, you’re getting at least one guaranteed spot in the next four Club World Cups.  And you decide how to award it each year.  It could be your league champ, your cup winner – hell, even your Fair Play winner or some kind of special Spanish formula that you devise.  Put your best people on it; whatever you decide, your country earned it.  All we ask is that you set out the rules clearly each year so there are no shenanigans.  And for a napkin, please. I’m done with my paella.

Spot 16: one spot awarded to the FA of the future FIFA World Cup holding country to award as they see fit.  A different, but equally potent kind of genius.  This stirs up all sorts of hype for the coming tournament, and lets the world see and understand more about the footballing style of the country they’ll be invading in a few years’ time.  Brazil, you’re up: have at it.  Hell, incorporate that wacky Paulista thing into how you award your spot.  Whatever you feel like, just make it transparent ahead of time. 

[Note: a compelling argument could be made to include a club from the host country.  I considered it, am not opposed to it, but left it out for now. Perhaps they would play off with the Oceania champ for the right to enter the tourney as they do now.  I may change my brain about it in the future.] 

That’s our 16.  We have a tournament. 

Now, el Seeding. 

This is where being an American really helps out.  We have March Madness, and we know how to construct a knockout tournament.  Hint: don’t do it like the FA Cup.  The key takeaways from our NCAA brethren: 1. Use regions (in this case, different cities in the host country).  2. Use a human committee to figure things out (and lock them in a sweaty hotel room if possible)  3. Seed the tournament once based on current form, not past achievement.  If we follow these rules, we’re only doing what’s fairest for the current teams (who could have qualified at different times and with different rosters) and the fans (who want to see a good few days of soccer, not a coronation).  And then we get to 4. Have a selection show where all is revealed, and then an uncomfortable committee chairman is forced to explain why Manchester United got a weak 1 seed and has to play River Plate, among other things.  (Can you imagine the English media bearing down the NCAA selection committee? Yowsa.)

The selection show will get insane ratings and get the hype to a nice, simmering pitch. 

How many regions?  Four seems right.  We’ll have four 1 seeds, four 2s, 3s, and 4s.  The best overall 1 seed (again, based on current form) gets the worst 4 seed, just like in college hoops.  Each region (city) gets a 1v4 and 2v3 game (ideally played as a double-header of some sort), then a regional final between the winners; a further city (or cities) gets the semis and final.  I’m going to use Germany as a nice generic host example to make this easy to visualize – because I know nothing about current host Abu Dhabi.  Over Championship Fortnight, hypothetical German edition, we’d get:

Monday: 1v4, 2v3 doubleheader in Nuremberg
Tuesday: 1v4, 2v3 doubleheader in Stuttgart
Wednesday: 1v4, 2v3 doubleheader in Frankfurt
Thursday: 1v4, 2v3 doubleheader in Hamburg
Saturday: doubleheader: Nuremberg final followed by Stuttgart final
Sunday: doubleheader: Frankfurt final followed by Hamburg final

[Note: Worried about Thursday teams playing again too soon?  You could easily squish those first four days into three or even two if necessary.]  Now we have our, um, Quintessential Quattro™.  Everybody takes a minute to breathe, and then:

Wednesday: doubleheader: Semi 1 and Semi 2 in Munich; winners to:
Saturday: Final in Berlin

Fun right?  OK.  Here’s where I really go bananas and attempt to demonstrate exactly how cool this could be.  Everything here is conjecture, even moreso than the rantings above.  It’s just for fun. 

What If We Held Said Tournament This Year? (??¿?)

Well… this is where going bananas gets real. Kapow! Our qualifiers:

Inter [Italy] (Uefa CL winner)
Bayern [Germany] (Uefa CL runner-up)
Lyon [France] (Uefa CL semifinalist; would normally play off with Barca, but Barca already in as defending champ)
Internacional [Brazil] (Copa Lib winner)
Sao Paolo [Brazil] (Copa Lib semifinalist; would normally play off w/U. de Chile, but finalist Chivas is from Concacaf so they can’t use Copa Lib to get in)
U. de Chile [Chile] (Copa Lib semifinalist; would normally play off w/Sao Paolo, but finalist Chivas is from Concacaf so what he said)
Seongnam [South Korea] (AFC CL CL winner)
Zob Ahan [Iran] (AFC CL finalist)
TP Mazembe [Congo] (CAF CL winner)
Heartland [Nigeria] (CAF CL finalist)
Pachuca [Mexico] (Concacaf CL winner)
Cruz Azul [Mexico] (Concacaf CL finalist)
Hekari Utd [Papua New Guinea] (OFC CL winner)
Barcelona [Spain] (defending CWC champ)
Sevilla [Spain] (say WC-holder Spain sends Copa del Rey winner)
Santos [Brazil] (say next WC-holder Brazil sends Copa do Brasil winner)

Again, the tournament would be seeded like just the NCAAs; i.e., a committee ranks 1-16 from top to bottom objectively and based on current form.  The point, again like the NCAAs, is to create the most balanced tournament from the qualifiers.  I don’t know much about a bunch of these teams, but the regions could look something like:

1. Barca vs. 4. Heartland
2. Santos vs. 3. Seongnam
1. Inter vs. 4. Hekari
2. Sevilla vs. 3. U. de Chile
1. Sao Paolo vs. 4. TP Mazembe
2. Bayern vs. 3. Cruz Azul
1. Lyon vs. 4. Zob Ahan
2. Internacional vs. 3. Pachuca

Hows about that?  Here are some positives:

– An awesome global assortment of teams
– Way more interesting international crossover potential than currently exists
– Teams play a max of 4 matches; half play only 1 match and are home within three days.
– Everything ties into the rolling cycles of World Cup hype, bridging the previous World Cup to the next one, and giving us junkies something to subsist on in the off years
– A fantastic NCAA selection-Sunday type seeding show (again, imagine the controversies over the 1 seeds!) that would make loads of money for FIFA (in fact, the whole tournament would do that).
– Some great giant-slaying possibilities – but also, no excuses for top-seeded teams not to move on. 
– New and interesting countries could host, and they wouldn’t need to be huge or have crazy infrastructure to do so.  As, uh, I think you need to host a World Cup.  Ahem. 
– And: fans could actually travel and follow their team on the adventure!  And it would be worth it, because a true international flavor would be there (not just a few journalists from the Guardian).  It would be an intense fan experience.

There are negatives; fixture congestion is one which I have chosen to ignore for now, but let me say – perhaps this is held only in years 1 and 3 after a World Cup.  Year 2 would still belong to the regional national tournaments, and year 0 to the World Cup itself, of course.  Another one – why would teams want to do this?  Well, hows about $25 million in prize money to the winner?  Make up a number, I don’t know.  This would easily begin to generate enough revenue for an earth-shattering top prize. Another negative: many good teams miss out.  Like teams from England, Holland, Argentina and the like.  You know what though?  That’s just this year.  Next time, in only two years, there might be a wildly different mix.  And you’d want it that way – unlike the Uefa Champions League, it wouldn’t be the same six teams in the quarterfinals every year, as if by birthright.  It would be eclectic, unpredictable, and beautiful.  The centerpiece of the international calendar. 

Annnyways.  I have a good time with this type of stuff, but I really think these changes would produce a fun and weighty tournament. And now, back to… Your World (not trademarked).  Where I intermittently write a blog and, now, have a craving for Spanish food.