MARRAKECH, Morocco (Reuters) - For the estimated 10,000 Atletico Mineiro fans who made the arduous journey from Belo Horizonte to Marrakech, the Club World Cup was the most important competition their team had ever played in.
Ever since winning the Libertadores Cup in July, the Brazilian club and its supporters have been dreaming obsessively of a chance to measure themselves against European champions Bayern Munich in the final.
In the event, they suffered a shock semi-final defeat to Raja Casablanca, who in turn faced the Bavarians in Saturday’s decider.
That match brought Morocco to a standstill, thousands of Raja fans made the trip south and the game was attended by King Mohamed.
In Europe, the same event is often regarded as a mid-season excursion to play unknown teams with exotic names, a view summed up by Borussia Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp’s reference to the classic movie “Casablanca”.
“The last time I heard about Casablanca was when Humphrey Bogart was playing,” Klopp quipped. “Maybe someday it (the competition) will be of a higher value.”
In many ways, the competition acts as a reminder of the great divide between European club football, which attracts the very best players, and the rest of the world, which acts as its feeder.
European sides such as Bayern Munich are replete with top talent from around the world and even most of their substitutes are regular internationals for their respective countries.
The best South Americans play against, rather than for, the teams from their continent.
South American and African club sides are generally made up of players who have not been good enough to earn a move to Europe, plus a few who have been abroad and have returned home to play out their careers, such as Atletico’s Ronaldinho.
Raja Casablanca, a team of average league players with only a sprinkling of international caps between them, are a case in point. Morocco’s national team is based almost entirely on players based abroad.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter admitted he was frustrated at the lack of European interest in the competition, especially as the tournament has moved closer to home after previously being staged in Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
”I agree that we are disappointed,“ he said. ”I think there should be a little bit more attention to other competitions, but with the big leagues in Europe, you have the question of the calendar.
“The quality of the matches we have seen, with some very good football in a remarkable ambience, this is best publicity, and the best way of getting more attention of the five big leagues,” Blatter said.
“It’s a question of solidarity,” he added. “They should also be interested in the other leagues and have a look at what is going on elsewhere.”
Unfortunately for Blatter, Saturday’s final, where Bayern strolled to a 2-0 win, was a poor advertisement, especially as the Bavarians had also eased to a 3-0 win over Guangzhou Evergrande in their semi-final.
In fact, the tournament has yet to produce a truly memorable final since it started in 2005.
South American clubs have won three times out of nine but those were all achieved by accepting their role as the underdog, shutting up shop, defending doggedly and snatching a goal on the break.
Sao Paulo in 2005, Internacional the following year and Corinthians last year all won the final by a single goal.
Bayern made the right noises about the importance of winning and their players appeared to be repeating pre-rehearsed lines when they talked about facing “different opponents from other continents”.
Guangzhou coach Marcello Lippi admitted there was a huge gulf between his team and Bayern, however.
“You see the real difference between the best club in the world and the rest,” the Italian said. “Maybe this competition was stronger when it was just a single match between the champions of Europe and South America.”
But he also pointed out that Bayern had enjoyed similarly easy wins in the Bundesliga and Champions League and it would be unfair to exclude teams from the rest of the world.
“It’s not just us. They play with this superiority against everyone else,” he said. “Taking part in international competition allows us to become a better team. You need to take part in this sort of football experience to grow.”
Editing by John O'Brien