Time to shake up the FIFA Club World Cup

For one reason or another I took a particular interest in last year’s FIFA Club World Cup held in Japan.

It may have been the involvement and respectable performances of two of Asia’s leading clubs – Sanfrecce Hiroshima from the host nation and Chinese squillionaires Guangzhou Evergrande – or the relatively friendly timeslots in which the games were broadcast live via Fox Football to Australia from the land of the rising sun.

Yet despite the impressive goalscoring feats of FC Barcelona’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez or the fighting spirit displayed by Hajime Moriyasu’s freshly minted J.League Champions, to me there seemed to be much missing from what is purported by FIFA to be the globe’s most significant trophy for clubs.

Indeed, I reckon the time is right to revaluate and rejig how the tournament is run and won, and even hold it less often yet in a far bigger way in order to give it the kudos it deserves. In my opinion, the FIFA Club World Cup ought to become a standalone competition held over a month, precisely like the FIFA World Cup is.

Admittedly, the idea of a month-long tournament for clubs raises plenty of potential problems that would need to be navigated in its developmental and organisational phases. Chief among the hazards would be the differing times of year in which the world’s domestic and continental competitions are contested, player availability, national team calendars, and much more.

But for me the potential positives of holding the tournament like a FIFA World Cup could outweigh the negatives, and could ensure that the FIFA Club World Cup becomes a far more interesting feature on the global football schedule.

Anticipation makes a good thing last, so holding the tournament once every four years rather than annually would provide significant lead time for supporters around the world – both of the qualified clubs and not – to get excited about the competition. There’d also be some truly unique and diverse match-ups, further demonstrating the inclusive and culturally extraordinary nature of football.

Moreover, there’d be the opportunity for more clubs to represent their nation and region in intercontinental competition and aspire to global greatness. Currently, one club from each confederation qualifies to play in the FIFA Club World Cup – seven teams. An eighth club – the Champions of the host nation (in 2015 Sanfrecce Hiroshima) – also enter the fray.

I’d propose that each Confederation’s slots for the FIFA Club World Cup largely mirror that of the FIFA World Cup. For Russia 2018, FIFA have allocated Africa five places, Asia 4.5, Europe 13, North, Central America & Caribbean 3.5, Oceania 0.5, and South America 4.5. A representative from the host nation (1) rounds out the 32 teams.

For the FIFA Club World Cup, the allocations may be similar to this:
» CAF: 4 places – a continental Champion per year qualifies
» AFC: 4 places – a continental Champion per year qualifies
» UEFA: 12 places – a continental Champion per year plus runners-up qualifies, plus four Europa League Champions qualify
» CONCACAF: 4 places – a continental Champion per year qualifies
» CONMEBOL: 6 places – a continental Champion per year qualifies, while the remaining two places are determined from two play-off winners from the four runners-up
» OFC: 1 place – the most recent continental Champion qualifies
» HOST: 1 place
» TOTAL: 32 clubs

Granted, the idea presented here is not fool proof and there could be many holes shot in the concept. But if FIFA are indeed serious about making the FIFA Club World Cup the most prestigious prize on offer for clubs, than the tournament in which its won simply must evolve to be much more than a week-long, fly-in-fly-out mission in which UEFA’s or CONMEBOL’s Champion can be crowned kings of the world after merely 180 minutes of match play.

What changes would you make to improve the FIFA Club World Cup? Let me know via Twitter.

Who is Hakan Calhanoglu?

Hakan Çalhanoğlu

Hakan Çalhanoğlu

Anyone who happened to watch Bayer Leverkusen’s UEFA Champions League qualifying triumph against Roman giants Lazio this week may quite easily be able to answer the question posed in my title.

However if you happened to miss the German’s aggregate 3-1 win to reach the Group Stage proper of Europe’s premier club competition, or are not a frequent follower of the Bundesliga, the query may not be as simple to respond to.

Admittedly, the name, the man, the player Hakan Çalhanoğlu is relatively new to me, too. But since I caught on to the exploits of the 21-year-old Turkish tyro, I’ve been excited to soak in as much action involving the former Karlsruher and Hamburg attacking midfielder as my beIN Sports subscription will allow.

You see, in the world of football the term ‘free-kick’ specialist can be bandied about somewhat loosely. Strike a couple of decent efforts on goal from the set-piece and all of a sudden what ought to be a title reserved for the few true artists of the dead ball situation seems to stick.

But any pundit, any journalist that uses the above glowing description for Çalhanoğlu is well within their rights, for this is a kid with true craft and creativity in his right boot.

Last weekend on matchday 2 of this season’s Bundesliga, Çalhanoğlu — who in fact scored for Turkey U-20 against the Young Socceroos in Trabzon at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup — netted his first stunning set-piece of the season. The goal from 25-yards ensured Roger Schmidt’s side down rivals Hannover 96 1-0 away from home, keeping Leverkusen’s perfect start to the campaign intact.

From an individual perspective though, Çalhanoğlu’s stunner last round could well be the first of many more often thunderous, curling, swerving, successfully converted set-pieces for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany’s top flight and in continental competition throughout 2015-16.

So, while Australian football fans should keep an eye on Leverkusen’s Champions League fortunes this season due to Robbie Kruse’s place in their squad, they should also be well served by placing their other one on Çalhanoğlu — the gifted German-born Turkish international who time and time again leaves goalkeepers wondering why they even bothered to set up a wall.


Inside the Socceroos: Who is Ben Coonan?

kaiserslauternWhen the Socceroos took to the field against Germany at the Fritz-Walter-Stadion in Kaiserslautern last March, there was one man inside the venue atop the Betzenberg that would have appreciated being at the match more than most. 

That man wasn’t Alex Wilkinson, the Australia and Jeonbuk Hyundai defender lining up in the heart Ange Postecoglou’s backline. Nor was it Mile Jedinak, the Socceroos skipper and Crystal Palace midfielder who history will show scored a fantastic free kick during the exciting 2-2 draw. 

In fact, the man to which I refer didn’t lace up a boot or kick a ball against the reigning World Champions at the impressive home of famed Bundesliga club 1. FC Kaiserslautern. But he does enjoy inextricable links to the aforementioned Wilkinson and Jedinak, having like those players honed his craft at one of the Hyundai A-League’s club of opportunities, the Central Coast Mariners. And he does enjoy a close connection to the famed Fritz-Walter, having nine years earlier been in the stands as a fan as Australia came from a goal down to defeat Japan 3-1 in its first FIFA World Cup match in 32 years. 

I write about Ben Coonan – or ‘BJC’ for those of you who may have received an e-mail from Ben in the past. Ben was part of the Socceroos’ management team in Europe for the recent friendlies against Germany in Kaiserslautern as well as Macedonia in Skopje, handling media requests and crafting content, primarily of the video variety. 

Indeed, Ben has been working closely with Australia’s national teams for the past 18 months or so, even travelling to Brazil as a key member of Football Federation Australia’s (FFA) internal media staff for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It’s a fair bet that if you’ve watched a video on Socceroos.com.au over the past while, it’s been conceived by, shot and cut by the boy from Budgewoi. 

Ben is a humble hombre, and not one to pump up his own tyres. But I, like many, have a lot of time for the former Melbourne Heart team manager, and thought it might be time to share a slightly different view of the Socceroos, and how Ben has risen from modest Mariners media man to an important cog in FFA’s communication department. 

When the Hyundai A-League commenced, Ben – a long time fan of the game and even “stats man” for Graham Arnold during his days coaching Northern Spirit – grasped the opportunity to get involved with his newly found local professional team, the Central Coast Mariners. A ‘Coastie’ himself, Ben’s passion for his local area ran – indeed, still runs – deep, so he gave his time complimentarily to the Lawrie McKinna coached side, and John McKay marshalled administration. 

Speedily Ben’s commitment to his tasks, impressive daily output, genial nature, and desire to help see the Mariners succeed prompted Lyall Gorman, then the club’s Executive Chairman, to offer him a full-time role with the club. Indeed, Gorman asked Ben at the time what he thought his annual salary should be. Having never earned a salary before, Ben quickly surmised that $500 a week, or just $25,000 a year, would be adequate. Needless to say Gorman swiftly agreed, and the Mariners had a bargain on their hands working day in, day out to ensure that the unlikeliest of all eight foundation Hyundai A-League clubs would survive and thrive.

Five Hyundai A-League campaigns, countless press releases, videos, and media opportunities later, Ben decided it was time make tracks, but continue to make content. Departing on a free-spirited sojourn, Ben utilised his skills with words and vision to fashion features on Australian players abroad. His work was broadcast on SBS and Fox Sports, published in various football magazines including the now defunct Australian Football Weekly, and via wire agencies including Australian Associated Press (AAP). His journey saw him traverse Europe, then Asia, as he captured and cut yarns on Australian football luminaries including Harry Kewell in Istanbul, Josip Skoko in Split, James Holland in Alkmaar, and Mark Milligan in Chiba. 

With the Hyundai A-League expanding to include a second Melbourne side in 2010, the freshly established Heart approached Ben to join them as a key member of their football department. Well regarded for his meticulousness, Ben was an ideal candidate to help the competition’s newest team in their organisational matters – his knowledge of the league, its rules and regulations, plus movers and shakers proving to be a valuable asset to the AAMI Park outfit.  

In 2012 Ben departed Melbourne and began life as a freelancer again. With plenty of experience under his belt, this time Ben broadened his approach to include numerous pitches of his expertise to FFA and Hyundai A-League management. From these proposals, Ben joined the Socceroos and Matildas in camp and on tour, and crafted content for the Hyundai A-League Finals Series and Foxtel A-League All Stars teams. Most recently, Ben shot and produced a mini-documentary for Fox Sports tracking the life and career of Hyundai A-League stalwart John Hutchinson – a player he worked with from very early on in the Mariners’ existence. He continues to work closely with FFA, and will be one of the people charged with delivering unique insights to fans from Australia’s qualification path to Russia 2018 — a journey which includes trips to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Bangladesh, and Jordan. 

For me, Ben Coonan is one of the largely unheralded behind the scenes maestros of Australian football. Still in his early 30s, Ben’s story is only beginning, yet the teachings of his career thus far are significant for those who may wish to emulate him. If you love what you do, continually seek to improve, and utilise your passion to help you build your network, you can achieve great things and leave a lasting legacy in your chosen field.