Barcelona will have the chance to crown a memorable year in perfect fashion as they seek to be crowned champions of the world in Japan this week. Having won the second treble in the club’s history last season, including landing Europe’s Champions League, Barcelona will be competing against fellow confederation-champions in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The inaugural edition of the competition was held in 2000, growing out of the Intercontinental Cup, previously played on an annual basis between the champions of Europe and South America. But it is only since 2005 that it has become a regular fixture on the calendar. And it speaks to Barcelona’s incredible run of success over the past decade that they will be competing for the trophy for the fourth time. While they have won it twice, a 1-0 defeat to Brazil’s Internacional in 2006 shows the dangers of presuming Europe’s increasing dominance of the global game will automatically equate to victory for the Champions League winners.
Although the competition is not always given the utmost respect in certain corners of Europe, Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherano has insisted that winning the trophy represents a major motivation for him and his teammates.
“Lots of people believe that this is a minor competition, but it is not like that, they are wrong,” he told Barcelona’s official website. “For us it is a very important competition and it will have an effect on the rest of the season.”
“It’s important for us and for the club the fact that we can go there and compete to be the best in the world and above all, obtain the prize. Often Barcelona is talked about as a reference point in the world and now we have the chance to crown ourselves as such. We know it will not be easy but we are excited about having the chance to do it.”
For Mascherano, the competition could be particularly significant, with it providing a potential opportunity to go up against his first club, River Plate, for the trophy. The Buenos Aires giants have had their own year to remember, lifting South America’s version of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, in August, under the tutelage of Mascherano’s former teammate Marcelo Gallardo.
There is no question of the significance the Club World Cup holds in South America, with the 15,000 fans that have reportedly traveled to Japan speaking volumes. Another sign is that River Plate have followed what has become a recurring trend of Copa Libertadores winners enduring a subsequent slump as they immediately begin looking ahead to the chance to test themselves against Europe’s best. River have also had to deal with the familiar problem of losing key players. Center-back Ramiro Funes Mori is now plying his trade in the Premier League with Everton, while striker Fernando Cavenaghi took the chance to return to Europe with Cypriots Apoel Nicosia.
And before they can go up against the best that Europe has to offer, River Plate will have to navigate a potentially tricky semifinal. For River that means going up against the local invitees to the competition, Sanfrecce Hiroshima. The Japanese champions have already had to navigate two matches to get this far, sweeping aside Oceania champions Auckland City in a playoff and then African Champions League winners TP Mazembe in the quarterfinals.
TP Mazembe still have some involvement in the competition, however, with a fifth-place playoff against Concacaf Champions League winners Club América on Wednesday. The Mexican side disappointed in allowing a 1-0 lead to be overturned in the final 10 minutes against Asian champions Guangzhou Evergrande on Sunday. Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou have won the Asian Champions League crown for a second time in three years, on the back of a major investment in the club.
Now coached by the man who led Brazil to the World Cup title in 2002 -- and their 7-1 humiliation to Germany in 2014 -- Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou have spent big on luring Brazilians Robinho, Paulinho, Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart. Now, though, Scolari will have to get past the challenge of a team that has swept all before them in 2015.
The one crumb of comfort for Scolari will be that a player whose ability he knows well, Neymar, will miss the semifinal on Thursday, and is a major doubt for the final, should Barcelona make it, with a groin injury.
FIFA Club World Cup remaining schedule (all times EST)
Fifth-Place Playoff: Club America vs. TP Mazembe (Wednesday, 2:30 a.m., in Osaka)
Semifinal 1: Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs. River Plate (Wednesday, 5:30 a.m., in Osaka)
Semifinal 2: Barcelona vs. Gunagzhou Evergrande (Thursday, 5:30 a.m., in Yokohama)
Third-Place Playoff: Semifinal 1 loser vs. Semifinal 2 loser (Sunday, 2 a.m., in Yokohama)
Final: Semifinal 1 winner vs. Semifinal 2 winner (Sunday, 5:30 a.m., in Yokohama)
TV info: All matches will be screened on Fox Sports 1