Real Madrid will play in Club World Cup – but FIFA still face battle over their control of the game

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Carlo Ancelotti’s claim Real Madrid would pull out of Club World Cup was wrong - but FIFA’s new tournament has stirred up a string of issues

Carlo Ancelotti raised a few eyebrows this morning – not just his own, for once – when he unilaterally announced that Real Madrid would not play in the newly-expanded Club World Cup, the first rebooted edition of which is due to be hosted in the United States in 2025. The club have moved quickly to quash the idea that they would pull out of the tournament, but Ancelotti’s rogue statement brought additional attention to the fact that FIFA is facing a mighty scrap with numerous interested parties to get Gianni Infantino’s new baby off the ground.

“FIFA forgets that the teams will not participate in the new Club World Cup,” the Champions League-winning manager said. “A single Real Madrid match is worth €20m and FIFA wants to give us that amount for the entire tournament. We will decline the invitation."

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It turned out that he didn’t speak with the authority of the board in this instance, and a comunicado oficial was quickly cobbled together which told the world that “at no time has there been any question regarding our participation” and that the club are “proud and excited” to be involved. They may well be, but as Ancelotti’s off-message outburst demonstrated, not everyone is quite so thrilled.

Just as Ancelotti’s objection to the new tournament, which will feature 32 teams and have a format similar to that employed by the World Cup in recent years, was about money, so FIFA’s motivation for setting the entire thing up was strictly financial too. FIFA has long been deeply jealous of the success of UEFA’s Champions League and wanted to find another tournament which could rake the cash in outside of the quadrennial World Cup. In World Cup years, FIFA makes a fortune. The rest of the time, it loses money, often in rather large quantities.

This new format has been Infantino’s pet project for some time now, and is seen as a way to bring a fresh wave of cash in to line FIFA’s coffers, but it hasn’t quite been as successful as hoped in the early stages. As recently as April, FIFA was briefing that the total prize money awarded to competing clubs would be a colossal €2.5bn (£2.1bn), but according to the New York Times they have thus far only been able to agree broadcast contracts for around a quarter of the US$4bn that FIFA had hoped to raise – as such, the prize pot has been slashed to just £600m, making Ancelotti’s figure more or less accurate (although one doubts the number of matches Real actually earn €20m from otherwise).

Broadcast rights don’t represent the only commercial issue dogging the Club World Cup. FIFA had hoped to raise around €1bn from major sponsors but has found few takers – and is now engaged in wrangling with regular World Cup sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Adidas because it believes that they should strike new deals for the revamped tournament, something the companies involved dispute due to existing contracts which covered the ‘old’ Club World Cup.

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Money isn’t the only issue, either. The World Leagues Association and international players’ union Fifpro sent a letter to FIFA in May which threatened legal action over the scheduling of the tournament and the demands placed on players expected to participate.

According to those organisations, the schedule is now “beyond saturation” and has pushed players “beyond their limits” – and there have been indications of a rise in injuries as top players routinely find themselves playing 60 or 70 games a season including international matches and money-spinning friendlies.

“Should FIFA refuse to formally commit to resolving the issues,” the letter continued, “we shall be compelled to advise our members on the options available to them, both individually and collectively, to proactively safeguard their interests. These options include legal action against FIFA.”

It remains unclear as to how far stakeholders from the playing side will be willing to go and there has typically been a lack of collective action from players over issues such as scheduling, but the needle is moving in that direction, especially with big leagues less than thrilled over the prospect of the introduction of another drain on their clubs’ time and resources.

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As Premier League chairman Richard Masters said in April: “It is getting to a tipping point. The feedback we have from players is that there is too much football being played and there is constant expansion… If you overload the calendar and the players, at some point, something has to give.”

In general, the clubs themselves – who are typically prioritising the financial health of their shareholders over the welfare of their players – aren’t likely to rebel against FIFA over the Club World Cup, but it wasn’t entirely surprising that it was a representative of Real Madrid who spoke out against the new tournament.

They are one of two clubs, along with Barcelona, who remain publicly committed to a European Super League and who have yet to rejoin the European Club Association (ECA) as a result. The Club World Cup is, in some corners, seen as supplanting the proposed Super League and as such Real and Barcelona are believed to be less keen than other clubs in getting involved. Even if they have decided publicly to toe the line for now, one wonders whether Ancelotti’s outburst reflected private conversations from inside the Bernabeu’s corridors of power rather than the opinion of one man.

So the battle lines are drawn – in their quest for fresh income, FIFA find themselves butting heads with leagues, players, sponsors, and perhaps eventually some clubs who want to strike off in their own direction. There is, generally, considerably more support among FIFA members outside of Europe, places where the minimum €20m prize money (or thereabouts) is worth considerably more, but the loudest voices remain those from the old continent and without the commercial clout of clubs like Real and the prestige of their gilded player bases, the Club World Cup would almost certainly founder.

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All FIFA wanted was a little more cash, and perhaps some hype over what could, on paper, be an exciting addition to the footballing calendar. Instead, it finds that it has potentially opened up a pitched battle over the soul of the game, played out between the players, whose bodies are being stretched to breaking point, and various rival commercial interests who want their slice of the pie and want it at a knock-down price.

Perhaps this will all blow over without a real fuss being raised, but the possibility of collective action by player in particular raises the prospect of huge changes to how the game is run – if players want to change the paradigm, then they have the power to do so and could easily force FIFA into substantial concessions, a situation which would inevitably greatly weaken their grip on the global game.

There is less than a year to go until the first game is meant to kick off, although the dates and host venues have yet to be determined with contracts uncompleted. That year could easily see a fight for the future direction of the game – and a fight over whose interests come first when decisions are made – which FIFA did not want or, apparently, anticipate.

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