Can Brazil’s Palmeiras Win The Club World Cup?

At the last Club World Cup in 2019, Flamengo fans travelled halfway across the world from Rio de Janeiro to Doha to support their club at the global finals. They had won the Copa Libertadores final in thrilling fashion against River Plate, a crucial step on the way to their dream of a new triumph over Liverpool. In 1981, the Rio club and Zico breezed past the English 3-0 in the Intercontinental Cup.

Ultimately, Roberto Firmino ensured an English triumph with a strike in extra time, but even so Flamengo’s participation was very instructive. In South America, the Club World Cup matters: reaching the final and winning it is considered the pinnacle of what a club can achieve. It eclipses any win in domestic or regional competitions. It’s why Neymar and Santos couldn’t stop talking about playing Barcelona in 2011 or why 30,000 Corinthians fan travelled to Yokohama a year later. After all, it is a chance to go toe-to-toe with Europe’s best and, in roundabout way, you get more bragging rights at home. 

And that is what makes this year’s Club World Cup all the more important to Palmeiras. They have never won the global crown, even though they claim that victory in an international tournament in 1951 counts as one. In reality, local rivals Santos, São Paulo and Corinthians, their arch rivals, can all point to victories in the Intercontinental Cup or today’s equivalent. 

Spearheaded by Pelé, Santos were among the best clubs in the world in the 60’s. In 2005, São Paulo’s Mineiro sneaked through the offside trap to strike against Liverpool and seven years later Paulo Guerrero headed Corinthians to glory against Chelsea. Those two victories followed a smash-and-grab blueprint: the Brazilian teams sat back and hit on the break. 

It’s the modus operandi Palmeiras will employ in Qatar as well. The team of coach Abel Ferreira is conservative. In last weekend’s Copa Libertadores final, they were happy to sit back and wait for their moment. Opponents Santos couldn’t find a way through and the match rapidly descended into a war of attrition, only for Palmeiras and Breno Alves to strike in the 10th minute of injury time. 

There is of course another reason why Brazilian clubs tend to counterattack at the Club World Cup. Economic imperatives mean that their best players leave the country at a young age. Deprived of their best talent they can’t match the quality and finesse of Europe’s champions or sometimes other continental champions. In 2019, Flamengo struggled in the semi-finals against Asian champions Al Hilal from Saudi Arabia. It took the Rio club 78 minutes to take the lead before running out 3-1 winners. 

Since 2000 South America’s champions have crashed out four times at the semi-final stage. River Plate, Atletico Nacional, Atletico Mineiro and Internacional hold those unenviable records. 

In Sunday’s semi-final, Palmeiras won’t mind playing Tigres UANL from Mexico. The CONCACAF champions eliminated Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai on merit, but play a game based on ball possession and rely on their French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac in attack. That will suit Palmeiras, who can try and pick the Mexicans off on the break.

Tigres will be no less motivated. No club from North and Central America has ever reached the final of the Club World Cup. “We know that we can make history and we want to make history,” said Gignac, who has scored 144 goals in 244 games since joining he Mexican side on a free transfer in 2015.

An early exit would be unfathomable for Palmeiras, bringing shame and humiliation at home. On paper, the Brazilians are the favorites with a squad that mixes experience and talent, but history has proven that passage to the final and a dream date with Bayern Munich – provided the Germans defeat Egypt’s Al Ahly in their semi-final – will not come easy.