On Wednesday, a competition that in a way may be the single biggest in the world gets under way: the annual Club World Cup. True, only seven teams will be playing in Abu Dhabi. But, in theory, tens of thousands of soccer teams from every country in the world are eligible. Even your local team, should it put a crazy run of wins together, could be crowned world club champion.
The format of the final is a simple modified step-ladder. In the first round, the weakest teams square off: the champion of the host country (this year Al Wahda of the U.A.E.) and the Oceania champ. The winner is joined in the next round by the champions of Africa, North America, and Asia. The two winners there meet the champions of the big soccer continents, Europe and South America, in the semifinals. And the final follows. There are 3rd place and 5th place matches too.
(I call this a modified step-ladder, since more than one team is added at each stage. The Horizon League's tournament in NCAA basketball is another example. An example of a true stepladders, in which only one competitor enters each round is the system for PBA televised bowling finals until the late 1990's: the 5 seed played the 4, winner played 3, winner played 2 and winner played 1 to determine the champ.)
The tournament is the end of a two-to-three year process that gradually thinned every professional team in the world to these seven. The favorites, Inter Milan, for example, first had to place in the top four of the Italian league in 2008-09. That qualified them for the 2009-2010 Champions League. They won that event, beating dozens of the best teams in Europe, to make it to Abu Dhabi.
Let's take a look at a more unlikely winner. Philadelphia Union, a Major League Soccer expansion team, played its first ever game on March 25, 2010. On April 27, they began a potential 24-game march to being champions of the world in 2012.
That game was a qualifier for the U.S. Open Cup against New York Red Bulls away. A win there and two more single elimination wins would put them in the round of 16 of the Open Cup proper. Four more wins and they are Open Cup champions!
Games 8 and 9 in the quest don't come until the 2011 Concacaf Champions League, the continental championship. The Union would first have to win a home and home series, probably against a Caribbean or Central American team. Next they would be placed in a group of four and play everyone home and home for Games 10-15. Finish in the top two in that group and it's on to the quarterfinals, but not until 2012. Games 16-21 are three more home and home series: Wins there, most probably a couple of them against tough Mexican competition, would make the Union the continental champions. Then it's a simple matter of traveling to Japan in December 2012 and winning three more matches -- including beating the South American and European champions -- and the Union would be on top of the world only a few years after its first competitive match.
So how did the Union's 24-game quest go? They lost Game 1 to the Red Bulls. Oh well. This spring it all begins again, and the Philadelphia Union, along with tens of thousands of other teams, can dream about having a nonzero chance of being champions of the world in 2013.