For the first time in FIFA history a Club World Championship is on the calendar - from 5 to 14 January 2000 in Brazil. Eight teams and dozens of the world's football stars will be competing in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo for the title of Club World Champions - and many experts see Manchester United as the hot favourites.
Manchester United (winners of the UEFA Champions League), Real Madrid (winners of the 1998 Toyota Cup), Necaxa (winners of the CONCACAF Champions Cup), Al-Nassr (winners of the Asian Super Cup), South Melbourne SC (winners of the Oceania club championship), Vasco da Gama (winners of the Copa Libertadores), Corinthians (champions of the host country), and Raja Casablanca (Winner of the African Champions' League) - these will be the eight teams taking part in the FIFA Club World Championship.
The tournament will be held in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro and the Morumbi Stadium in Sao Paulo and will provide plenty of incentive for the clubs taking part, from the financial side as well as for sporting prestige. The winners will earn prize money of 6 million USD, the second team 5 million, third 4 million and the others 2.5 million each.
Manchester United are rated as the favourites at the moment, even though they have not looked invincible during the last few months. But the experts are still of the opinion that they will be the strongest team in Brazil from both the skill and the tactical points of view. Whether they prove to be the best team in the world remains to be seen, but what is not open to discussion is the fact that they are easily the richest club in the world. Their balance sheet is most impressive: for the season 1997/98 the club had a turnover of 140 million USD, with a profit of 22.5 million. The market value of the club's shares - it went public in 1991 - currently stands at around 800 million USD.
In sporting terms too, the club has a team in the superlative class. "This could be the best team of all time," said Sir Bobby Charlton, the legendary former United player and now an honorary member of the board of directors, last April. A few weeks later they won the English Premier League, the FA Cup and then the UEFA Champions League.
The architect of their success is manager Alex Ferguson. With 29 titles to his credit the Scot is the most successful football coach in the world, followed by Giovanni Trapattoni of Italy, Bob Paisley of England and another Scot, Jock Stein, each with 20 titles. Thanks to a blend of hard work, in-depth knowledge of the football business, the ability to manage people, patience and self-confidence, Ferguson - who has been with United for 13 years - has steadily built up a great team and helped players like David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane become world stars. In addition he has often shown a canny touch in the transfer market, for example with the purchases of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, who scored 53 goals between them last season.
The two strikers, Yorke and Cole, may well be among the goals again in Brazil - after their triumphs in 1999 Manchester would like to go down in history as the first team to win the Club World Championship. For that reason they have withdrawn from the traditional FA Cup in England - a move that gave rise to a lot of controversy in the homeland of football.
Home advantage for EdmundoReal Madrid will be the other European team arriving in Brazil with a star-studded squad, containing such names as Raul, Fernando Redondo, Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, etc. But in contrast to Manchester United, Spain's most successful club has been in trouble for some months, both from the sporting and the financial points of view. Because of the lack of success on the pitch they released their coach John Toshack in mid-November, but even so they are still rated as serious contenders for the title of World Club Champions.
Two other teams seen as having good chances are the Brazilian sides Vasco da Gama and Corinthians. Clearly they will have the advantage of playing at home and they will not have any problems adjusting to the heat of Brazil in January, likely to be intense. Both of these clubs also have some famous names in their teams at the moment. Vasco da Gama will be hoping primarily that Edmundo will be in scoring form, the striker having played for AC Fiorentina in Italy as well as for the Brazilian national team. Among his credentials are 29 goals in the 1997 season and all six in his club's 6:0 win over Uniao Sao Jose in the same season. Also a problem for any opposing defence will be his attacking partner Donizete, who played a big part in the club's victory in the Copa Libertadores.
Corinthians too look to have a strong team. Their key player is the Colombian midfielder Freddy Rincon, who was voted best player in the Brazilian championship last season. They also have Vampeta, a tricky midfielder, and goalkeeper Dida, both current members of the Brazilian national team. Dida has earned himself a reputation - especially during the Copa America in Paraguay - as the "penalty stopper", and is now the undisputed number one for Brazil.
The Australian amateursThe Asian representatives at the tournament, Al-Nassr, will also have several international players in their side. Al-Nassr is the most popular and most successful club in Saudi Arabia(22 titles), and a few months ago they were joined by the Bulgarian international Hristo Stoitchkov for a short while. They are coached by the former Yugoslavian national trainer Milan Zivadinovic. Al-Nassr are known throughout Asia for their polished attacking style of play, which brought them convincingly through to success in the Asian Super Cup.
Another team known for its attacking flair is Necaxa. The team from Mexico City have excited their supporters in recent months with their attractive play and they made a strong impression as they won the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Although they have several Mexican internationals in the side, their key player at the moment is from outside the country - the Ecuadorian Alex Aguinaga - who is superb on the ball and can hit pin-point passes. He is the team's chief strategist, and will be aiming to get striker Carlos Hermosillo into the action, the latter being a Mexican national team player who was until recently engaged in the USA with Los Angeles Galaxy.
The rank outsiders in the competition seem to be South Melbourne SC, the only club of the eight that has amateurs and semi-professionals on its books. Their average gate during the Australian championship is around 6000, but they hope to be able to compensate for their lack of experience at international level with extra effort and enthusiasm. Manchester United will be expected to win matches, South Melbourne will not, but that does not mean that the Australian club, which has strong connections to the Greek immigrant community, could not provide a bit of a shock for the title favourites from England. But that is something that is all the other teams will be trying to do as well