FIFA Club World Cup: Meet the minnows & outsiders aiming to topple big boys Liverpool & Flamengo in Qatar
From European footballing royalty to a team hailing from a tiny South Pacific island, an eclectic mix of continental champions will descend on Qatar in the coming days as FIFA hosts the 16th edition of the Club World Cup.
The tournament features seven teams and kicks off in Doha on Wednesday as hosts Al-Sadd play Oceanian minnows Hienghene Sport in Doha.
The tournament will serve as part of the test-run for the 2022 World Cup in the same country, although the FIFA club showpiece has already been hit by an embarrassing last-minute hitch when one of the three venues – the Education City Stadium in Doha – was declared unready.
Instead, all matches will now be played at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium and Khalifa International Stadium – the latter of which hosted the World Athletics Championships earlier this year.
In past years Europe and South America have held a stranglehold over the competition, sharing all 15 titles between them (four for South American clubs, 11 for Europeans).
UEFA Champions League winners Liverpool and Copa Libertadores champs Flamengo will be hotly tipped this time around, although surprises could lie in store from the various continental kings convening in Qatar.
Here, RT Sport takes a look at all the contenders.
European champions: Liverpool (England)
Six-time European champions, 18-time champions of England, Liverpool will head to Qatar as favorites for the Club World Cup title.
Jurgen Klopp’s men booked their spot at the tournament by beating fellow Premier League team Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League final in June.
Since then, they have emerged as runaway leaders at the top of the Premier League as they go in search of a first league crown in 30 years, meaning confidence will be high as they seek a maiden World Club Cup crown.
The Reds last appeared in the tournament in 2005, when a team managed by Rafael Benitez lost 1-0 to Sao Paulo of Brazil in the final.
This time round, they begin their tournament at the semifinal stage – as is the right afforded to European Champions – and will open their campaign on Wednesday December 18, against one of Al-Sadd (Qatar), Hienghene Sport (Oceania) or Monterrey (Central/North America).
Perhaps the biggest concern for Klopp and Co is the heavy fixture congestion they face in December and the New Year, which has led to them having to field a reserve team for their English League Cup fixture against Aston Villa on December 17 – just one day before they play in Qatar.
It’s difficult to single out specific talent among such a constellation of stars in the Liverpool ranks, but Dutch defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk was immense in their Champions League-winning campaign. Recently pipped to the Ballon d’or by a certain Lionel Messi, Van Dijk is regarded as among the best players on the planet.
Elsewhere, prolific Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah, Senegalese star Sadio Mane, and mercurial Brazilian Roberto Firmino form an attacking trident as good as any in world football.
South American champions: Flamengo (Brazil)
Brazilian giants Flamengo ended a 28-year wait for a Copa Libertadores title in November when they claimed a dramatic victory against River Plate in Lima, thanks to a late double from on-loan striker Gabriel Batista, better known as Gabigol.Also on rt.com 'What a final!' Gabriel Barbosa scores two late goals, gets sent off as Flamengo claim first Copa Libertadores since 1981
Managed by veteran Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus, the six-time Brazilian champions will be appearing at their first FIFA club showpiece, and will be aiming to become the fourth different South American winners of the competition, after Corinthians (twice), Sao Paulo and Internacional.
Like Liverpool, Flamengo start their campaign at the semifinal stage by virtue of their continent’s standing. They will be widely fancied to progress to face the English club in a final that most observers will be hoping for.
Flamengo’s strike partnership of former Santos teammates Bruno Henrique and Gabigol will be crucial to Flamengo’s chances. Brazilian marksman Gabigol, 23, has been a revelation since joining on loan from Inter Milan, scoring 34 times in 41 appearances.
Elsewhere, midfielder trio Gerson, 22, Everton Ribeiro, 30, and Giorgian De Arrascaeta, 25, are all key players.
Asia: Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia)
Saudi Arabians Al-Hilal are making their first ever appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup, and qualified after beating Japanese outfit Urawa in the AFC Champions League final over two legs in November, picking up their third continental crown.
Founded in 1957, Al-Hilal have won the Saudi league a record 15 times and boast the accolade of being crowned the best Asian club team of the 20th century by football records-keepers the IFFHS.
Managed by Romanian Razvan Lucescu, they boast some familiar faces in their ranks in the form of ex-Juventus forward Sebastian Giovinco and charismatic forward Bafetimbi Gomis.
The Riyadh club start their campaign in the second round against African champions Esperance de Tunis, with the winners meeting Flamengo in the semifinal.
French forward Bafetimbi Gomis will be a familiar face for fans in the English Premier League and Turkey, having had spells at Swansea and Galatasaray.
Famous for his ‘crawling beast’ goal celebration, the 34-yearold Gomis has had plenty of cause to break it out since joining Al-Hilal in 2018. He contributed 11 goals during the winning AFC Champions League campaign, finishing as the tournament’s top scorer and MVP.
He will be a handful for any defense in Qatar, while ex-Juve ace Giovinco and Saudi international winger Salem Al Dawsari are also ones to watch.
African Champions: Esperance de Tunis (Tunisia)
Esperance de Tunis sealed their spot in Qatar by picking up back-to-back African Champions League crowns, beating Wydad Casablanca of Morocco in the summer. That came in contentious circumstances as the Moroccans left the field in the second leg in protest at a VAR decision, leading to Esperance ST being declared winners.
The Tunisians have won their domestic league title a staggering 29 times, including seven in a row between 1998 and 2004, and are on a current run of three consecutive titles.
They will be making their third appearance at the FIFA World Club Cup, finishing in sixth and without a win in Japan in 2011, and fifth in 2018 in the UAE, having lost their first game but winning their second on penalties.
The team managed by Mouine Chaabani open their campaign this year against Saudi outfit Al-Hilal, with Flamego awaiting the winners in the semifinal.
In reality, it would be a sensation if the team in the distinctive red and yellow stripes put themselves anywhere near contention to become the first FIFA club kings from their continent.
Tunisian international Taha Yassine Khenissi, 27, is one to watch. The 27-year-old will be playing at his third Club World Cup in what is his second spell with the team. The forward has netted 64 times in 139 games for the club, a very respectable return that he will look to add to in Qatar.
Central/North American champions: Monterrey (Mexico)
Mexicans Monterrey qualify as CONCACAF Champions League winners, beating fellow Mexican side Tigres 2-1 in this year’s final to clinch their fourth continental crown.
It will be their fourth appearance at the Club World Cup, with their best finish being third in 2012.
The Liga MX outfit are managed by Argentine Antonio Mohamed, who only took over in October and is in his second spell with the club in what has been a peripatetic managerial career for the 49-year-old.
The Mexicans could be many people’s pick as dark horses behind the more fancied Liverpool and Flamengo, and open their campaign in the second round against the winners of the opening fixture between hosts Al-Sadd and Oceanian minnows Hienghene Sport. Should they progress, they would face Liverpool in the semifinal.
Argentinian forward Rogelio Funes Mori will be vital to Los Rayados’ chances. The 28-year-old joined the club in 2015, and has gone on to score 92 times in 182 games.
Oceanian champions: Hienghene Sport (New Caledonia)
Only the second ever Oceania representatives from outside of Australia or New Zealand, Hienghene Sport are the minnows of this year’s FIFA club event.
Hailing from the tiny Pacific island of New Caledonia, Hienghene became surprise OFC Champions League winners when they beat fellow islanders AS Magenta in May.
Managed by Felix Tagawa , 43, a Tahitian former forward, the team unsurprisingly has close bonds given the tiny nation from which it hails, with skipper Bertrand Kai playing alongside cousin Anthony, while brothers Roy and Miguel Kayara also feature.
"As amateur players, we live an ordinary life. We try to strike a balance between our work, family and playing football"The town they represent has a population of just 2,500 people 🤯But Bertrand Kai says Hienghene Sport are not at the #ClubWC to make up the numbers 🇳🇨🇫🇷💪— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) December 10, 2019
While the prospect of a potential semifinal against the mighty Liverpool awaits, Hienghene will first have to negotiate an opening game against hosts Al-Sadd and then a second-round game against Monterrey to get that far.
Perhaps indicative of the challenge the face is the result they suffered when making a guest appearance in the seventh round of the Coupe de France, where they were beaten 3-1 by lowly Strasbourg Vauban.
Still, you can always dream…
Captain Bertrand Kai is a New Caledonia international and is the focal point for his team. Despite being a boarding school manager, Kai, 36, had the honor of becoming just the second player born in his country to be crowned Oceania Player of the Year – after French World Cup hero Christian Karembeu.
Hosts: Al-Sadd (Qatar)
The Qataris qualify by virtue of being tournament hosts and could be a surprise package to trouble some of the bigger teams at the event.
They have a legend at the helm in the form of ex-Barcelona and Spain midfielder Xavi Hernandez, who spent four seasons playing at the club before taking over as coach in May.
The Qataris are 14 time winners of their national league, and will be making their second appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup, having finished third in the 2011 edition.
They will have the added boost of home support and familiarity with the playing conditions, and open their campaign with what looks like a foregone conclusion against Oceanian minnows Hienghene. Beyond that would be a tie against Mexicans Monterrey and then potentially Liverpool in the semifinal.
No team outside of Europe or South America has ever lift the FIFA Club World Cup title, and Al-Sadd will be aiming to change that this year and continue Qatar’s footballing emergence on the back of their AFC Asian Cup win.
Al-Sadd have a core of Qatari internationals who helped their country to the AFC Asian Cup this year, when they beat Japan in the final in the UAE.
But their foreign contingent is also crucial – not least Algerian forward Baghdad Bounedjah.
He was player of the tournament as Algeria won the 2019 African Cup of Nations, and netted 39 times for Al-Sadd as they won the title this season.
2000 – Corinthians (Brazil)
2005 – Sao Paulo (Brazil)
2006 – Internacional (Brazil)
2007 – AC Milan (Italy)
2008 – Manchester United (England)
2009 – Barcelona (Spain)
2010 – Inter Milan (Italy)
2011 – Barcelona
2012 – Corinthians (Brazil)
2013 – Bayern Munich (Germany)
2014 – Real Madrid (Spain)
2015 – Barcelona
2016 – Real Madrid
2017 – Real Madrid
2018 – Real Madrid
Tournament top scorers
7 goals – Cristiano Ronaldo (1 Manchester United, 6 Real Madrid)
6 goals – Gareth Bale
5 goals – Cesar Delgado, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez
Al-Sadd v Hienghene Sport, December 11, 17:30 GMT
Monterrey v winner of match one, December 14, 17:30 GMT
Al-Hilal v Esperance de Tunis, December 14, 14:00 GMT
Fifth-place play-off: Loser of match two v Loser of match three, December 17, 14:30 GMT
Semi-final: Flamengo v winner of match three, December 17, 17:30 GMT
Semi-final: Liverpool v winner of match two, December 18, 17:30 GMT
Third-place play-off: December 21, TBC depending on the outcome of 18 December semi-final
Final: December 21, TBC depending on the outcome of 18 December semi-final