The Last Word: Journey into the unknown? We've been here before

Club World Cup is not the first time the parochial English game has been slow to spread its wings
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The Independent Online

Whatever he says, I suspect Sir Alex Ferguson would sell Real Madrid a virus. Such are the calculating and self-serving environs of the professional game that if the Manchester United manager did have a batch of the H5N1 strain hanging around causing a bad smell in the reserves, and if the Spanish giants came knocking with the right price, he would, reluctantly, let his flying winger of foreign descent – Mr Bir D'Flu – go. It wouldn'tbe for him to worry about what havoc the Bernabeu mob were planning to wreak with their destructive purchase. Sir Alex probably doesn't even have the time to watch Spooks.

Of course, there are plenty of traditionalists out there who believe that Real, United and the other footballing superpowers are already on the pathway to destroying the world, certainly their little world of flat caps, rattles, Bovril and a team for every community. And no, this fear has nothing to do with Sir Alex last week sounding less like an ambassador of European football at its global celebration and more like Tony Soprano at his henchman's funeral; it has everything to do with that damned Club World Cup, the latest meaningless extravaganza designed purely to drain the game of its last shilling.

Except the English naysayers should be hesitant when it comes to their predictable hollering and should, perhaps, pay heed to their sport's history. Which country refused to enter the World Cup for the first 20 years of its existence, until it suddenly dawned on them that this might not be the irrelevant junket they first took it to be? Could it be the same country who took two years to allow any of their clubs to play in the European Cup as they fretted how calamitously it would affect the standard of their domestic competition? Does that sound at all familiar amid all these bleatings of the disrespect to the sanctity of the Premier League?

Interestingly, the members of the Football League who went against the wishes of their authorities in 1957 and went into Europe were a certain Manchester United, but this past month or so their mutterings have made them sound anything but pioneers, helping to bring the richest glories of the game to the far-flung corners that have yet to be converted by the Cristiano soldiers. When a manager is clearly more concerned with the challenge presented by Stoke City on Boxing Day than he is by that of the champions of South America this morning, it will inevitably beg a couple of questions.

One that must be floating around Fifa HQ is: will English Champions' League winners ever regard entry to the Club World Cup as an honour rather than an onerous responsibility, as a challenge to be embraced rather than a side-effect to be weathered? Listening to Paul Scholes, they will very likely doubt it. "Obviously, we would probably rather be in England and playing our League game," said the veteran midfielder, coming over all George W Bush.

Scholes is a curious cove, a player who probably best sums up the mangled moral make-up of the Premier League. On one hand, you have one of the most respected players in the division, a professional to whom "consummate" is the obligatory prefix; yet on the other, you have an Englishman who has refused to play for his country since he was 29, despite changes at management level and repeated entreaties.

How does the reputation and the reality tally away from Old Trafford? Or perhaps it does, and perhaps that is exactly what the "consummate professional" does in this age: extend his club career and thus his wage potential by forsaking that thankless task known as the national cause.

To a lesser extent Ryan Giggs, that other paragon of professionalism, did a similar thing with Wales a couple of years ago, although at least the United captain made all the right noises in the land of the rising yawn last week. Indeed, his argument that the Club World Cup is "the hardest to win" even bore the slightest merit, although if he does lift the silverware in Yokohama this morning then, regardless of all that "world champions" nonsense, it will be impossible for even this fine diplomat to declare it as "the best to win".

And why should it be, a tournament still in its infancy boasting all the tradition of the X Factor final? The Club World Cup will have to earn its status just as the European Cup and the World Cup did, and there is every possibility – every certainty, even – that, like some well-meant and ill-judged concepts that have gone before, it will fall miserably short of what it strives to be. But it has on the negative side of zero chance unless the European teams – the outfits to whom we, on this side of the equator, rathernonchalantly ascribe all the make-and-breakability – go into it with a radically different mindset.

The first thing they must do is stop banging on about how it might affect their domestic hopes. Sir Bobby Charlton and the boys did not moan back in the Fifties, and they had the British weather to contend with as well. Those were the days when fixtures log-jammed because of frozen pitches, but that was just life before undersoil heating and that was just football. Success brings with it a price, but also so many rewards. This morning is the time to focus on the latter.

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