No Barcelona, Liverpool or Manchester United. What now for the new Club World Cup?

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No Barcelona, Liverpool or Manchester United. What now for the new Club World Cup?

It’s FIFA’s shiny new toy and the brainchild of the body’s president, Gianni Infantino.

Yet the inaugural, expanded, 32-team Club World Cup, which will take place in the United States next summer, will kick off without a number of football’s European heavyweight sides and the participation of many of the game’s stars is far from guaranteed.

Barcelona’s 4-1 home defeat by Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, condemning them to a 6-4 aggregate exit from the Champions League quarter-finals, means they join a list of definite absentees that already includes Manchester United, Liverpool and AC Milan. Arsenal will also miss out after being knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich.

Rather than Barca, fellow Spaniards Atletico Madrid will play — even though they have also gone out in the last eight of the Champions League to Borussia Dortmund. Because Atletico’s co-efficient ranking is higher than Barcelona’s, they become the 22nd club to qualify.

Liverpool, United, Milan and Barcelona won’t be at the 2025 Club World Cup party between June 15 and July 13 next year, and neither will a by-then 40-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, now of Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr, while whether Lionel Messi, who would turn 38 during the tournament, and his MLS side Inter Miami get on the guest list remains to be seen.


Ronaldo, who turns 40 next year, remains a big draw for many fans around the world (Waleed Zein/Anadolu via Getty Images)

So with some of the world’s most decorated clubs and plenty of individual footballers with the greatest commercial pull failing to book their places, what does this mean for the new competition?

“The Premier League is one of the few leagues that’s still able to command significant value and that’s been extended to the success of the Champions League,” said Paolo Pescatore, founder and technology, media and telecommunications analyst at PP Foresight. “Everyone wants a bit of the action and, because of that, you have seen a huge inflow of money coming via sponsorships.

“If some of these teams, players and coaches aren’t in a tournament like this, it has a significant knock-on effect on the value of those rights and the people watching because then obviously that has an impact on sponsorship and the flow of advertising dollars. It’s not got off to a great start if you don’t have some of the leading clubs.”

‘It’s not helped by missing three of the four biggest names in club football’

Infantino has been eager to move FIFA, world football’s governing body, into the men’s club game, no doubt with an envious eye on the money made by its European equivalent UEFA via its three annual club competitions — the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League. Ambitious targets have been set by FIFA for sponsorship and revenue at the revamped Club World Cup, but nothing has yet been firmed up in terms of prize money or TV rights.

Does it make it harder to sell the competition when so many big names are going to be missing?

“It’s hard to see it cutting through, to be honest,” said David Murray, a sports-rights consultant. “By bringing in all those (extra) teams, you might get a few decent games, but it still has the feel of a pre-season tournament rather than a major event. It’s then not helped by the fact you’re missing three of the four biggest names in club football.

“With the best will in the world, Manchester City and Chelsea aren’t Manchester United and Liverpool when it comes to global prominence, and Barcelona are also a massive miss. Apart from the semis and the final, are people really going to be interested?”

Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes and Declan Rice of Arsenal during a pre-season friendly in the U.S. last July (Al Bello/Getty Images)

The timing of the event is also a factor, given it is moving to the traditional “summer tournament” space, as opposed to happening in the Club World Cup’s former position in December or January — midway through European football seasons — and is happening in the States while the domestic top flight, Major League Soccer, is underway with its February to December seasons.

Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, and other Premier League sides, are also already set to play pre-season matches in the U.S. this summer, while concerns have been raised in relation to the Club World Cup about player welfare given the ever-increasingly congested football calendar.

“It will be interesting to see what team someone like Pep Guardiola picks for Manchester City,” added Murray. “Is he really going to risk his best players getting injured? Or is he going to give them a proper summer’s rest? Particularly when his rivals potentially don’t have this as an issue. If the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland aren’t going to play much (in the Club World Cup), it begins to again look more like a friendly.

“It’s also just after the Champions League (that competition has its final in late May or early June) and if the winner of that isn’t playing, it would also look bizarre.

“It feels like a paid-TV filler. I can’t see it getting wall-to-wall coverage. It doesn’t really move the dial for TV subscribers, it might help retain people, as the summer is often when they lose people when there’s no football, but it’s certainly not going to attract any extra subscribers, I don’t think.”

Barcelona and Real Madrid played a pre-season Clasico in Texas last summer (Aric Becker/AFP via Getty Images)

Steve Martin, a sports marketing expert, told The Athletic: “It’s a global thing, so it will certainly dilute the commercial impact not having those teams in it.

“But it’s early stages still for this event and I think what they’ll be trying to do is wrap this into other packages, like the World Cup; it won’t just be a pure standalone sometimes. Are fans going to stop everything to tune into this? It’s got a lot to do to even compete, so it feels like a bolt-on rather than a destination for fans where they can’t wait to see it.

“The other side of the coin is it might open the doors to other markets to be playing against teams from around the world. There’s commercial value, or else they wouldn’t do it. A lot depends on what they do with it over time and how big they want it to be.”

When asked about the European heavyweights who are going to be missing out, FIFA said it showed the competition was a fair system, offered greater opportunity for other sides, and was a chance to develop the game across the world.

So who will be at the 2025 Club World Cup?

FIFA’s expanded tournament for men’s football will feature clubs from each of the six global confederations, with Europe providing 12 of the 32 teams. It will take place every four years in the year before the men’s World Cup.

Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City have qualified automatically from Europe as the three most recent UEFA Champions League winners in the four-year cycle. Also in from Europe are Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Milan, Porto, Dortmund, Benfica, Juventus, Red Bull Salzburg and now Atletico, via the coefficient ranking route (based on those four-year rankings).

CONMEBOL (South America) will have six of the 32 teams, while AFC (Asia) will have four, the same as CAF (Africa) and CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean). OFC (Oceania) will have one entrant, while the host nation — the U.S. next year — will get one more. These will qualify either as winners of their confederation’s premier club competition between 2021 and 2024 or through its club rankings during that same period.

Teams from these regions to have already booked their places are Palmeiras, Flamengo, Fluminense (all Brazil), Al Ahly (Egypt), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan), Monterrey, Club Leon (both Mexico), Seattle Sounders (United States) and Auckland City (New Zealand).

At the tournament, teams play in eight groups of four, so three games each as at the World Cup and European Championship, before a single-leg knockout phase to decide who gets to call themselves world champions.

It is worth noting the current, seven-team format of the Club World Cup will still take place annually under a different name — The Intercontinental Cup.



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 (Top photo: Adria Puig/Anadolu via Getty Images)