We just finished winning our third consecutive Club World Cup, our third in the last four years, and the collective response has been, in general, a big yawn. Yeah fans were happy to see us lift a trophy, the first during the Solari era (even typing that feels silly), but the major victory in this competition was in simply getting there by winning the Champions League. This is just the delayed pay-off.
In trying to come up with an angle to write about this match, and deciding that there are few conclusions to be drawn from it, it has brought me to a more fundamental question: how do clubs decide which competitions to prioritize? It’s pretty obvious that the CWC is not high on the list of goals in any given season, but since we’re in it, we have to take it seriously because to lose would be a huge embarrassment.
Outside of this token trophy, there are three other primary competitions on offer year-in and year-out - Champions League, La Liga, and Copa Del Rey, generally prioritized in that order. The question - and it’s one I don’t presume to have the answer to - is how and why do clubs choose to focus on one over the others? The answer, I believe, will differ from club to club, based on individual history, financial resources, and the feasibility of a given squad genuinely contending for a given title. In the case of mega clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona, who can realistically expect to win any competition they enter, the decision becomes more subtle, and more daunting, because failure in any one of them carries a significant weight.
The Champions League possesses an obvious prestige, as it is contested by the best teams in the best leagues in world football. The other continental titles, in particular the Copa Libertadores, are exciting and have their own enticing story lines, but they don’t carry the same weight because, as is usually the case in world history, European might and money have carried off most of the world’s best and brightest. Therefore, the best players all end up on the best teams, conveniently all located in Europe, so when they duke it out on the international stage, they can convincingly claim to be competing for the best-in-the-world tag. This is the reason for the general malaise toward the Club World Cup among many fans of European football – it has essentially already been won.
For Real Madrid, club history adds another layer to this picture, as the club has been inextricably linked with the European Cup since its inception via former president Santiago Bernabeu, who helped usher in its existence. And arguably the club’s greatest legacy has been its record in this competition, as it has been far and away the most successful of any of Europe’s elites, winning a record 13 times, including a stretch of 5 straight from 1956-1960 and the more recent three-peat from 2015-2017. In years past, when the team has performed well in La Liga but failed to find glory in the Champions League, the reaction from the fan base has been less than enthusiastic (see, for example, the reigns of Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster).
The La Liga title, while still greatly coveted, has a slightly more subdued allure. While it’s possible that this is just a bit of sour grapes - insisting that the trophy we lost wasn’t REALLY the one we were after in the first place - I think it’s fair to argue that it lacks the prestige factor of the UCL. I bet even most Barcelona fans would agree with that, seeing as how badly they are yearning for it this season. Our lack of success at winning La Liga in recent years, and the seeming prioritization of the Champions League, is frustrating for me personally because La Liga is the tournament I focus the most on. I spend way more hours, week in and week out, watching multiple games and tracking teams’ trajectories. Our progress and setbacks in the league affect me more than the one-off tournaments, especially as it’s more of a marathon than a sprint and I feel so invested in it. Still, I can’t deny that, given the ultimatum, I would choose the Champions League over La Liga any day.
In the midst of these other two, the Copa Del Rey often feels like a consolation prize, or an afterthought at best. It’s the one most likely to feature squads full of youth team members, and also the most likely to see lesser teams advance and even win, a la Espanyol, Zaragoza, and Mallorca in the early 2000s. So while it’s often hard to muster much concern for it, the Copa Del Rey is still very much a major trophy whose acquisition can come to define a season.
It is in this context that the Club World Cup begins to pale in comparison, through no fault of its own other than the fact that it does not include the same quality of competition the others do. It’s a good opportunity for clubs from other regions to put on a display for a wider audience and possibly even come away with a surprise victory, but for the European teams involved, it’s a lose-lose prospect: minimal prestige in the case of a win and devastation with a loss. Nevertheless, it’s a trophy we have that no one else does, and one that we were able to compete for three straight times by virtue of our dominance in Europe, and for that reason alone it shouldn’t be written off. It’s not really fair to draw any huge conclusions from our performance in it, but I think we can enjoy it for what it’s worth – another nice cup for the trophy case and another tangible sign that few can compete with us, in Europe or anywhere else in the world. The other three competitions are clearly on a higher echelon, but seeing as you have to conquer them to have a chance at the CWC, it’s impossible to dismiss it completely. So let’s pat ourselves on the back, enjoy the moment, and then gear up for the real challenges ahead. In this season we’re currently having, literally any other positive result will be considered a massive win. I’m here for all of it.