Failing to conquer the world
Manchester United play LDU Quito on Sunday at 10.30 GMT for the chance to be crowned FIFA Club World Champions. On the face of it, an Ecuadorian club should hold few fears for Fergie's men but perhaps he and his cohorts should heed some warnings from history.
The chance to be the called the best club in the world is surely an accolade to be taken on. Or so you would expect. Yet British football clubs have never taken to cross-continental competitions. The old World Club Championship - a play-off between the champions of Europe and South America - gave rise to a number of notorious and controversial showdowns in the 1960s and 1970s and was shunned by English clubs until the two-legged format was abandoned and a cash-rich play-off in Tokyo was adopted.
Even then, English teams had a poor record until Manchester United lifted what had then become known as the Intercontinental Cup before then taking part in FIFA's abortive attempt to begin their own blue riband club competition. A re-jigging of the process to form what is currently known as a Club World Cup attracted Liverpool in 2005 but their luck was no better than it had been under the old format.
The confused and complicated history of the idea of determining the best club in the world has rarely been a happy hunting ground for teams from the British Isles:
1967: Celtic v Racing Club (Argentina)
The fabled Lisbon Lions were the first British team to win the European Cup and had the chance to become the first British club to win the World Club Championship, first set up in 1960 once South America established its own continental competition. Taking the form of a two-legged home and away tie, Celtic played an Argentine side who often chose foul means rather than fair to derail Jock Stein's side.
Two legs were not enough to separate the teams when Racing won their home leg 2-1 to Celtic's own 1-0 victory at Hampden Park. A play-off was hastily set up for Montevideo in Uruguay. Tempers boiled eventually over after the treatment meted out by Racing defenders to Celtic's forwards throughout the tie. No less than four Celtic players were dismissed to Racing's two. The Argentinians won the decider 1-0 while Stein was removed from the Queen's New Year's Honours list as punishment.
1968: Manchester United v Estudiantes del Plata (Argentina)
United were the first English club to be kings of their continent and so faced Estudiantes, hoping to become the second Argentine club to lift the trophy. They would emulate Racing - in more ways than one. Bad blood still boiled from those scenes in Montevideo and a South American lack of grasp of the difference between Scotland and England meant United received similar treatment.
They first travelled to Buenos Aires where Nobby Stiles - the villain of the 1966 World Cup on those shores - was targeted and even disallowed what looked a legitimate goal. Stars Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best all received rough-house treatment as Conigiliaro headed in the single goal. The return was a shocker of a match in which tempers again boiled over. Juan Veron - father of the midfielder who would later play for United - scored and despite a Willie Morgan equaliser, the game is best remembered for Best being dismissed along with the defender - Medina - with whom he had been having an on-field punch-up.
1980: Nottingham Forest v Nacional (Uruguay)A twelve-year absence from a competition that had been derided after those previous pitched battles for British clubs. Both Liverpool in 1977 and Nottingham Forest in 1979 refused to play. Further intercontinental ructions had followed, notably in 1969 between Estudiantes and AC Milan, and often the European clubs would not risk their stars being kicked off the pitch. Liverpool and Forest joined Ajax and Bayern Munich in refusing to turn up, often meaning the European Cup runner-up played in their stead. Borussia Monchengladbach took Liverpool's place in 1977 and the fixture did not take place at all in 1978.
Forest refused the challenge of Paraguay's Olimpia in 1979, Swedes Malmo taking their place before a neutral venue in Tokyo attracted Brian Clough's outfit in 1980. In the midst of a 42-game domestic unbeaten run, Forest followed in their countrymen's footsteps when Waldemar Victorino volleyed in for the Montevideo club on ten minutes and Forest's passing game withered amid their jetlag.
1981: Liverpool v Flamengo (Brazil)
Liverpool entered the competition, now made lucrative by Toyota's sponsorship, for the first time. And, despite their status as three-times European champions, fared as badly as their predecessors. Though they were treated to a footballing rather than atrocity exhibition.
Flamengo featured Zico, then at the zenith of his powers and perhaps the best player in the world at that time. His passing and attacking flair took apart a leggy Liverpool team. Three first-half strikes by Nunes (two) and Adílio made Flamengo Brazil's first winners of the trophy since Pele's Santos in 1963. For Flamengo this had been perhaps the clubs' greatest ever achievement while Liverpool were unwilling to take the fixture seriously. And paid for it.
1982 Aston Villa v Penarol (Uruguay)
The third English club to make the journey into a completely different time zone were Aston Villa, surprise winners of the 1982 European Cup. Like the previous year, the English club received a footballing lesson as Tony Barton's side were taken apart by the Montevideo club, who won the trophy for the third time by virtue of skills rarely seen in the West Midlands.
Veteran keeper Jimmy Rimmer could only deflect a well-struck free-kick from Brazilian Jair into his goal in the 27th minute. Silva scored a breakaway with 22 minutes to play while Villa, though perhaps taking it less lightly than Liverpool had done a year previously, were huffing and puffing for an equaliser that was never going to come.
1984: Liverpool v Independiente (Argentina)A second bite of Eastern promise for Liverpool plus a more professional approach yet the same rules applied. This Argentinian side were not the physical examination their predecessors in the trophy had been but were still capable of frustrating Liverpool.
An early goal from Percudiani after Jorge Burruchaga had provided a sneak preview of what he would show in the 1986 World Cup had Liverpool complaining of offside. They had a case but they still had 84 minutes to get on level terms. Independiente defended well and blunted the fabled attack of Rush and Dalglish with relative ease.
1999: Manchester United v Palmeiras (Brazil)
It had been a long absence for English clubs from this competition, largely as a result of a five-year European ban that followed the Heysel Disaster and the long time it consequently took to catch up with their continental cousins. Manchester United arrived in Tokyo amid a confused future for a showpiece which was by now a far happier hunting ground for European clubs.
They faced Palmeiras, a tough outfit coached by a certain Luiz Felipe Scolari. Felipão was rather fired up for this one and there was much pre-match talk of a return to late 60s-style rucks. It failed to materialise and United were able to end a 32-year hoodoo for the Brits. A Ryan Giggs cross was tapped in by captain Roy Keane and United could add to their Treble success. Their players' muted celebrations were in marked contrast to the devastation in the ranks of their opponents from Sao Paulo. Alex Ferguson had won what Matt Busby had not, yet developments had clouded that achievement.
2000: FIFA Club World Championships
United found themselves spending the first fortnight of the new millennium amid the pleasant surroundings of Rio de Janeiro after FIFA decided they wanted to expand the chance to compete for the rather arbitrary title of world's best club to all confederations. United headed to Brazil having withdrawn from the FA Cup to do so; thus entering an eye of the storm in which the real cause of all the trouble was the English FA's vain hope of winning votes for their ill-fated World Cup 2006 host campaign.
That fared as well as United did in Brazil. Their opener with Mexicans Necaxa revived some not-so-golden memories when David Beckham was dismissed after reacting to a kick from Jose Milian. United could only snatch a draw. Two Gary Neville goofs against a Vasco Da Gama team featuring Romario and Edmundo swiftly ended his team's hopes. A dead rubber win over the might of South Melbourne completed United's part in the farce. The tournament ended in a damp squib final between two Brazilian teams in which Corinthians, victors the previous year in Brazil's domestic league, beat Vasco, winners of the previous year's Copa Libertadores on penalties after a 0-0 draw when the current holders of both titles were not invited. A mess for all concerned.
2005: Liverpool v Sao Paulo (Brazil)
Back to Tokyo, new format in place and the ridiculousness of Rio banished to the annals after a 2001 renewal in Madrid had been abandoned. The Toyota Cup had remained in session so it was decided to amalgamate the two. Lesser confederations' teams would now play in a knock-out to get the chance to play against the two champions of Europe and South America in the last four.
The miracle of Istanbul meant Liverpool were in Japan, though the host city was now Yokohama, venue for the 2002 World Cup Final. After a semi-final breeze against CONCACAF's Costa Rican champions Deportivo Saprissa, it was Brazil's Sao Paulo who faced them up in the final. The new format was no more successful for them than their previous ventures had been. A well-taken goal from Mineiro, now of Chelsea, and the performance of keeper captain Rogerio Ceni won Sao Paulo
The Reds were unlucky in truth, hitting the woodwork, missing several chances and also having three goals ruled off for offside. Manager Rafael Benitez was incandescent with rage with the officiating and some old-style strong-arm tactics from the Brazilians, for whom the ends justified the means. Another unhappy outing in a competition in which Britain has struggled to rule the waves.