Real Madrid is making its sixth appearance at the Club World Cup, but faces stiff opposition from South American champions Flamengo among others.
CNN  — 

Less than six weeks after the national team’s remarkable performance at the World Cup, Morocco finds itself at the center of world soccer as it hosts the FIFA Club World Cup.

Since 2005 the Club World Cup has been held annually, featuring the six winners of each continent’s equivalent to Europe’s Champions League tournament, plus an additional club from the host nation.

Over the last decade, European teams have dominated the tournament, last losing a match when Brazilian club Corinthians beat Chelsea in the 2012 final. Fourteen-time European Cup winner Real Madrid will enter the 2023 competition as heavy favorites.

Unlike the World Cup where there is a group stage, the clubs play a straight knockout tournament with the caveat that various continents qualify for different stages of the tournament.

The champion of Oceania plays the host club in the first round. The winner is then drawn with the champions of Africa, Asia and North America in two knockout games. The winner of each game then plays the European and South American champions in the semifinals.

Because Wydad Casablanca is both the champion of Morocco and Africa, the role of “host” passes to Egyptian club Al Ahly who lost to the Moroccan team in the final of the African Champions League in May.

Wydad enters the tournament at the quarterfinal stage, playing against Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia with South American champion Flamengo waiting in the semifinals.

Hunting a record fifth title, Real Madrid also enters at the semifinal stage and will face either New Zealand club Auckland City, Al Ahly, or the Seattle Sounders – the first ever US club to play in the Club World Cup.

Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca will have a raucus home support as it aims to become the first African team to win the Club World Cup.

No African club has ever won the Club World Cup, but Wydad fan Mohamed Berrada is confident that in a tournament on home soil, the team can channel the success of its history-making national side – and perhaps even lift the trophy.

“We had a very good World Cup with the national team in Qatar,” Berrada tells CNN Sports. “Everybody is talking about us, and we know that we will be very followed in this Club World Cup.”

Expectations are high for the club with tickets for Wydad’s first match against Al Hilal selling out in under two hours as fans from Casablanca will make the one hour journey to Rabat’s 53,000 capacity Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.

A chance to break European dominance

Fans who regularly watch the English Premier League, La Liga, and the UEFA Champions League could be forgiven for asking the question: who cares about the Club World Cup? The European teams nearly always win, it adds extra fixtures to an already busy calendar, and fans have to watch their team play in far-flung countries.

That sentiment is shared by some players. Manchester United great Paul Scholes once said on BBC Radio Five Live that the Club World Cup was less important to him than his local badminton tournament.

But take a step outside Europe and the perception of the competition is very different.

Flamengo fan João Paulo still views his team’s 3-0 triumph over Liverpool in 1981 in the Intercontinental Cup – a precursor to the Club World Cup – as the greatest moment in the club’s history.

Despite Europe’s dominance in the tournament, it is still taken just as seriously in Brazil as it was 40 years ago.

In 1981 Paulo listened to the match against Liverpool on the radio; in 2019, he made the trip to Qatar where Flamengo lost against the same opponent, and this year he is one of thousands of Flamengo fans making the trip to Morocco.

Flamengo's Zico takes on Liverpool's  Ray Kennedy, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen.

“I believe that for us, for Brazilian and for South American supporters, winning the [Club] World Cup is something incredible. It’s amazing,” he tells CNN Sports.

“If we win this or if any team from South America can win this, this would be something that would change your life as a supporter.”

It’s a sentiment is not limited to South America.

Pitso Mosimane, who took Egyptian giants Al Ahly to back-to-back bronze medals in 2020 and 2021 and is arguably Africa’s greatest coach in the modern era, says the Club World Cup was the “highlight” of his career.

“It’s the pinnacle of any club coach,” he tells CNN Sport.s “What’s the biggest tournament you want to play? Some would say the Champions League, but the Champions League leads you to the Club World Cup.”

For Mosimane and others, the Club World Cup is the one chance that players, coaches, and fans get to test themselves against the very best.

And even in a format that Mosimane says loads the dice in favour of Europeans and South American teams by allowing them to enter at the semifinals, the Club World Cup is the opportunity for fans of the Sounders, Al Ahly, Wydad and even Auckland City to earn the respect that Real Madrid has by dint of its geography.

A changing landscape

Those “loaded dice” are potentially on their last roll as Morocco’s tournament is the final Club World Cup to be held in its current format.

Perhaps lost amidst the hysteria of Lionel Messi winning his first World Cup title was the announcement made by FIFA president Gianni Infantino that the Club World Cup would be turned into a 32-team tournament played every four years, starting in 2025.

It is recognition from the head of world soccer that the tournament has not drawn the interest that the concept warrants.

With the tournament falling at the same time as the major leagues in Europe and just a few weeks ahead of the resumption of the Champions League, FIFA has recognized that it needs to both expand the tournament and find a time that does not clash with major club soccer.

Soccer’s global governing body has not provided any information on the format of the tournament beyond the number of participants, but the announcement has caused quite a stir, particularly in Europe.

The Seattle Sounders will be the first team from the US to play at the Club World Cup after beating Pumas UNAM in the CONCACAF Champions League final.

The Premier League maintains its position that it is, “committed to preventing any radical changes to the post-2024 FIFA international match calendar that would adversely affect player welfare and threaten the competitiveness, calendar, structures and traditions of domestic football.”

FIFPRO, the global player’s union, said that the tournament could have “serious consequences for and aggravate pressure on the welfare and employment of players.”

However, Infantino’s idea has traction outside of Europe.

“We would love to see our team playing against more and more international teams,” says Berrada.

Moroccan journalist Amine El Amri agrees, bemoaning the “frustrating” model of the tournament now that gives the Europeans and South Americans an advantage over the other continents.

He tells CNN Sports: “I think it’s just so enchanting for the people of those countries to have their countries in a [Club] World Cup.”

Even in an expanded format, European clubs would arrive as heavy favorites and there are very real concerns about player welfare as the global soccer calendar mercilessly fills up.

But for those outside of Europe, an expanded Club World Cup, if organized properly, is a potential opportunity for those seen as second-class clubs to take their place alongside European clubs at the top table of world soccer.