World Club Cup: Crackers at Christmas, or a joy for the world?

An exhausting trip to Japan at a crucial time of the season is not ideal but, as Jonathan Wilson reports, this tournament is about spreading the word

Paul Scholes is never knowingly enthusiastic about anything (with the possible exception of Oldham Athletic), so it was perhaps no great surprise to hear his verdict on the Club World Cup. "It's a big club competition and we want to win," he said. "But, obviously, we'd probably rather be [in England], playing our league game and not have so many fixtures in January. We managed to win the European Cup last year and sometimes afterwards you have to do things maybe you don't want to do."

Leaving the shadow of the Pennines always seems a chore for Scholes, but the sense here is that the cynicism is universal. Sir Alex Ferguson's main concern yesterday seemed to be making sure the players do not return jet-lagged for the league fixture on Boxing Day. "It's never easy to acclimatise in such a short space of time – changing the body clock is the most difficult part of the trip," he said. "We had the players up at 7am on Sunday morning and made sure they didn't sleep until they were on the plane at night.

"That was the start of the process and we are working on the same principle through the week. We will then change back towards British time again on Thursday. It is the best way we can work it. It will give us the proper chance to acclimatise here and then to revert back to British time."

Which rather puts things into context. There may be a world championship on offer on Sunday, but its importance rather pales beside league games against Wigan and Stoke. United at least this time seem to be taking the approach that, if they have to be there, they might as well try to win the competition, which was not necessarily the case when they headed off to Brazil in 2000 for the inaugural version of the tournament.

On that occasion, overwhelmed by the heat of Rio de Janeiro, they drew with Necaxa of Mexico, lost to Vasco da Gama of Brazil, and by the time they beat South Melbourne it was all too late. They finished third in their group and were eliminated, and the highlight of a trip for which they'd opted out of the FA Cup was probably the story of Ferguson, sunbathing by the hotel pool one morning, looking up to see three of his players hang-gliding overhead.

Heat should not be a problem in the Japanese winter and neither, in truth, should United find the opposition as taxing as they did eight years ago. Four of the seven entrants have already been eliminated. First to go were Waitakere United, the part-timers from New Zealand, losing 1-0 to Adelaide United, who qualified by losing in the final of the Asian Champions League to Gamba Osaka, who had already been invited as representatives of Japan, the host nation.

Al-Ahly of Egypt, the African champions, then squandered a two-goal lead to go down in extra time to Pachuca of Mexico, who have won the last two Concacaf Champions Cups. Gamba beat Adelaide 1-0 to set up today's semi-final against United.

"They are the best team in the world," said Yasuhito Endo, who scored the winner against Adelaide, "but the passing game is one of our strengths, and we're ready to take the game to them. We have to be fully committed, because we won't win if we hold back even a little against a team like Manchester United. We have to focus on trying to score and not go into our shells. We won't change our style for this game."

Endo can play either on the left or as the central creator in Gamba's 4-2-3-1, but the suspicion must be that, for all his technical ability, he lacks the imagination or ruthlessness really to trouble a top side. The bigger danger to United may come through the rather more direct Ryuji Bando. Most strikingly, though, Gamba finished a disappointing eighth in the J-League last season, something widely blamed on the sale of the Brazilian forwards Fernandinho and Magno Alves at the end of the season, and their compatriot Bare's departure in July. They have not been replaced.

Waiting in the final will be Liga de Quito of Ecuador, who beat Pachuca 2-0 yesterday thanks to early goals from Claudio Bieler and Luis Bolanos. They lurched to the Copa Libertadores title last season – winning just one of their final seven matches – and have lost four players since, most notably the Paraguayan midfielder Enrique Vera, signed by the Mexican side America, and the right-winger Joffre Guerron, who has already made an impact at Getafe. They lie a distant fifth in the Ecuadorian championship, and a 4-0 pasting at the hands of what was effectively Boca Juniors' youth side in the Copa Sudamericana in September probably gives some indication as to their present abilities.

Assuming United do make it through, it will be the fifth time out of five that the final has been contested by the winners of the Champions League and the winners of the Copa Libertadores, which rather begs the question of whether it was worth changing the format that existed up until 2004 that pitted the South American and European champions against each other without the need for preliminaries against teams from the other confederations. (United, it is often forgotten, beat Palmeiras in Tokyo in 1999 to win the Intercontinental Cup, before heading to Brazil).

"The Intercontinental Cup has been the toughest to win," said the United midfielder Ryan Giggs who, like Scholes, played both in the Intercontinental and the Club World Cup in 1999-2000. "First of all, we had to qualify for the Champions League, which is tough, then you've got to win it, which is even more difficult – and then beat the champions of South America, who had achieved everything we'd achieved."

The attempt at diplomacy is laudable, but does not entirely hold water. Very few top South American players spend their peak years in South America, which, along with the fact that every top African player plays in Europe, means that the football played in the Champions League is by some distance the best in the world. For European sides, there is little glory in winning the Club World Cup; South American teams, by contrast, are battling to prove that economics are not everything and that they can still compete.

That three of the four Club World Championships to date have been won by South American sides is a curiosity, but almost certainly reflects Europe's comparative lack of interest rather than the superiority of South America: disinterest can be a handy excuse as well as a state of mind.

After all, this competition is not about determining the best team in the world. By inviting the other confederational champions, Fifa gives itself a tournament that allows it to share in the wealth of the club game and exert some control over it. Less cynically, the tournament is also about promoting football throughout the world, just as the World Cup needs its bloated format not to pinpoint a champion but to develop the game (and make money).

All of which means there is little kudos to be gained for a European side; it is, as Scholes said, merely the duty of champions.

Global ball game: Who's who in Japan

AL-AHLY (Egypt)

No team has appeared as often in this extravaganza (three times) as the Egyptian champions, but they have yet to build on finishing third in 2006 behind Internacional and Barcelona. Today's fifth-place play-off against Adelaide is worth $1.5m (£970,000) to the winners.

ADELAIDE UTD (Aus)

The Aussie side qualified as the best-placed Asian loser, not champions, through a complicated equation. They brought their own free-scoring Cristiano to the party but he couldn't find the net against Osaka and a fifth-ful of dollars is now all that's left to play for.

WAITAKERE UTD (NZ)

The newest team in Tokyo, having been established just four years ago, the Kiwis were sent home courtesy of a 1-0 defeat to trans-Tasman rivals Adelaide before the event had even begun. During their brief stay, fans were dazzled by Fifa's ones-to-watch: former Walsall men Neil Emblen (37) and Danny Hay (31).

PACHUCA (Mexico)

Founded in 1901 by Cornish farmers, the Concacaf champions were rewarded for a 4-2 extra-time victory over Al-Ahly with a semi-final against Liga de Quito. They outplayed the more illustrious South American side, but a 2-0 defeat means a third-place play-off, not a Man United match-up.

GAMBA OSAKA (Japan)

Once home to Junichi Inamoto and the only former Sunderland player not to apply for the manager's job, Patrick Mboma, the Asian champions are on a high after a winner from Endo against Adelaide set up today's semi against Man United.

LIGA DE QUITO (Ecuador)

A penalty shoot-out win over Fluminese secured Ecuador's first Copa Libertadores and a place in Tokyo as the first South American representatives not from Brazil or Argentina. Clinical finishing in their only match to date – a 2-0 semi-final win – means a minimum return of $4m from their Tokyo adventure.

16.5m

Total Club World Cup prize-money in dollars. Even lowly Waitakere will pocket $500,000 for failing to qualify.

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