The Club World Cup is huge in South America, in no small part because it is a continuation of local rivalries by other means.
That is especially true of the club representing the continent in this year’s competition, which has kicked off in Qatar. The pressure is on Palmeiras of Brazil. All of their local rivals can claim to have been world champions. Santos, the team Palmeiras beat in Saturday’s final of the Copa Libertadores, won the old Intercontinental trophy twice in the early-’60s. Sao Paulo did the same thing three decades later, and then emerged victorious in the first version of the current format in 2005. And, especially vexingly for Palmeiras, in 2012 the trophy went to Corinthians, their most traditional rival.
Palmeiras try to argue that they deserve the title of world champions for having won a tournament staged in Brazil back in 1951, featuring eight teams from seven different countries, where they beat Juventus in the final. But the desperation of their claims is liable to leave them open to mockery from other Brazilian teams.
The traditional team of Sao Paulo’s giant Italian community, Palmeiras used to be called “Palestra Italia” until the Second World War. The new name took on a pleasingly tropical touch; “palmeiras” translates as “palm trees.”
Last year, when Flamengo of Rio were in Qatar to play the tournament, many of their travelling fans took photos of palm trees in the area and joked that this was as close as Palmeiras would ever get to the Club World Cup. But here they are, trying to shake off the effects of a 12-hour flight and dreaming of a final on Thursday against Bayern Munich — but first having to focus on Sunday’s semifinal vs. Tigres of Mexico.
Ever since the current format was adopted in 2005, this semifinal has always been a tough hurdle for the South American champions. On four occasions, the champions of the Libertadores were beaten at this stage. Every other time they had to fight their way through to the final, while the European champions have always breezed through to the decider.
There are two explanations for this. One is psychological. For the South Americans, the semifinal is a type of torture. They dream of taking on the glamorous winners of the Champions League, and here they are, so close to a shot of glory — but even closer to the humiliation (because back home it will be seen as such) of losing the semi to rivals with comparably little tradition. It is an obvious recipe for tension.
And there is also a technical and tactical aspect. The best South Americans are playing in Europe. The club sides cannot boast the quality of, say, 25 years ago. Their triumphs in this format of the Club World Cup — Sao Paulo in 2005, Internacional the following year, Corinthians in 2012 — were all single-goal, backs-to-the-wall victories, soaking up the pressure from the European champions and breaking out to win with a rare attack. Against fellow continental champions, the South Americans are happier sitting back than taking the initiative. They are simply not built to take the semifinal by the scruff of the neck and impose themselves on the game.
Palmeiras are very much a counter-attacking team. Even in the extreme heat of last Saturday’s Libertadores final, they were quite happy to take the game to extra-time if necessary and wait for their moment to come — as it did so dramatically in the 10th minute of stoppage time. But they could have got lucky with their opponents on Sunday, after Tigres beat South Korea‘s Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 on Thursday with a pair of goals from French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
The Asian champions are another counter-attack side, the type of rivals with the potential to frustrate Palmeiras. The Mexican side, meanwhile, is more expansive, and — with some ageing limbs in the lineup — could offer Palmeiras the space to launch their quick breaks.
That could be good news for Luiz Adriano, the Palmeiras centre-forward. He has happy memories of the semifinal of the Club World Cup. Back in 2006 he made his name with the winner for Internacional against Al-Ahli of Egypt.
But Palmeiras will not be able to count on the surprise hero of the Libertadores win. Breno Lopes came off the bench in the second half against Santos to score the late winner. He would almost certainly not have seen action had highly rated teenage winger Gabriel Veron been fit. But he won’t take part in the Club World Cup, having signed for the club at the end of last year — too late for the competition’s cutoff point.
Palmeiras are racing to recover Veron from a muscular injury. He won’t be fit to face Tigres, and if it is decided that he cannot make Thursday’s final then he will be dropped from the squad 24 hours before the first game. The most likely substitute would be Wesley, another flying winger, who suffered a serious knee injury last year but has since recovered.
So no Breno Lopes and no travelling fans, which is a significant loss for the competition. The best thing about the Club World Cup is the atmosphere created by the South American supporters, who often make extraordinary financial sacrifices to follow their team on the big day. Pandemic restrictions have ruled that out this time.
There will be some Brazilians in the stadium, which is allowed to receive 30% of its capacity. Many Brazilians live and work locally, and some will go along to a semifinal with a very South American flavour. Half of the Tigres team are from south of the border. Coach Ricardo Ferretti is Brazilian, as is his central midfielder Rafael Carioca, who was briefly in contention for a place in the national team.
So there will be some Brazilian participation in Thursday’s final of the Club World Cup. But there will be no consolation for Palmeiras if Ferretti and Carioca are the ones fighting for the title.