When Man United ‘killed’ the FA Cup: How Red Devils caused furore by playing in FIFA Club World Cup precursor

The year 1999 will never be forgotten in Manchester United history. It was, of course, when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, boasting the fabled Class of 92 at its core, achieved footballing immortality.

No English club had ever achieved the treble before: winning the top flight of English football, the FA Cup, and Europe’s premier competition — the UEFA Champions League, previously known as the European Cup — in the same season.

United had done it in serious style, winning the Premier League on the final day of the campaign before sinking Bayern Munich in the most dramatic Champions League final, scoring two stoppage-time goals to win 2-1 at Camp Nou.

Twenty-four years on, Manchester City begin their FIFA Club World Cup challenge in similar circumstances, having claimed an historic treble in 2022/23 to secure their place at this tournament.

Yet Pep Guardiola’s side have avoided the significant dose of controversy that came United’s way when they competed in the Club World Cup’s precursor tournament, the FIFA Club World Championship, at the expense of defending their FA Cup title.

The Sporting News tells the story of United’s participation in the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup and why they were accused of killing the FA Cup in the process.

MORE: Which teams are competing in the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup?

When Man United ‘killed’ the FA Cup

Back in 2000, a competition that FIFA dubbed the Club World Championship was launched. After some teething problems, it eventually morphed into the FIFA Club World Cup that has been running annually since 2005.

Before it, the Intercontinental Cup had existed, which pitted the winners of the Champions League (or European Cup) against their equivalents from South America in a one-off game. In fact, United had competed in it — and won it — with a 1-0 victory over Palmeiras in 1999, having lost to Estudiantes in their only other appearance back in 1968.

But FIFA’s decision to start an expanded version, which would take place in January in Brazil — in the middle of the English club season — proved somewhat problematic.

United wanted to compete to represent Europe in the competition and, largely for political reasons with England bidding to host the 2006 World Cup, they were encouraged by their national Football Association to take part. The government even threw their weight behind the insistence on United being involved.

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It was decided internally at United that going to Brazil to play and jetting back for the FA Cup, in which Premier League teams traditionally enter in the third round in January, was too onerous on the players. The recently knighted Sir Alex Ferguson said at the time: “We can’t go for them all. We can’t play in the FA Cup and in Brazil. That would be impossible.”

Ferguson, a proud Scot, even cited England’s World Cup bid among his reasons to chose the FIFA tournament instead of the oldest cup competition in the world, yet he reportedly reached out to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in a private phonecall to try to persuade the government to allow United to play in the FA Cup instead. It’s clear Ferguson was under pressure to prioritise the FIFA tournament.

United chairman Martin Edwards, in a very measured statement, said: “We realise that many of our supporters will be as disappointed as we are with our decision not to compete in the FA Cup. Manchester United see this as an opportunity to compete for the ultimate honour of being the very first world club champions.”

Edwards added that the club had “no alternative” but to play in the competition and withdraw from the FA Cup at the same time, which prompted a major backlash in the media. Many pundits and fans were furious with United.

The Daily Mirror even carried a splash on their front page with the question “Is there anyone left in Britain who does not think Man Utd should be in the Cup?” Around the headline, famous UK faces from the day — including Blair, West Ham great Trevor Brooking, recently retired Premier League player Vinnie Jones, cricket’s Ian Botham, TV stars like Nick Hancock, and singer Caprice — gave their views on the general consensus that United were “disrespecting” or even “killing” the cup.

“The FA Cup should never be degraded for anything,” said former Wimbledon player turned Hollywood actor Jones. “If they don’t play this year, they should never play again,” added cricketer Botham.

Man United history in FIFA Club World Cup

The irony is that United performed very poorly in Brazil, giving great satisfaction to some of their critics.

The 2000 FIFA Club World Championship was an eight-team tournament, with Real Madrid also competing from UEFA. Vasco da Gama, Copa Libertadores winners in 1998, joined Corinthians in representing the host nation; CONCACAF Champions Cup holders Nexaca represented North America; Raja Casablanca and South Melbourne competed as champions of their respective regions; and there was also a place for 1998 Asian Super Cup winners Al Nassr, the team for which future United star Cristiano Ronaldo would play.

United salvaged a 1-1 draw from their opening group game against Mexican side Necaxa, with Dwight Yorke scoring late on after David Beckham had been sent off. They were then soundly beaten 3-1 by Vasco da Gama, the Maracana witnessing memorable performances from Romario and Edmundo, before a consolation win against group whipping-boys South Melbourne.

It meant United didn’t even make the third-place playoff, let alone the final, which was won by Corinthians against Vasco da Gama in an all-Brazilian affair.

There was more irony in that England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup was ultimately unsuccessful, with Germany winning the right to host the tournament.

United and Ferguson did eventually get their hands on the re-named and slightly tweaked FIFA Club World Cup after they’d won the Champions League in 2008. They beat Ecuadorian side LQU Quito 1-0 in Japan with a second-half strike from Wayne Rooney. That year, they even played in the FA Cup as well, losing on penalties to Everton in the semifinals.

United haven’t contested the competition since. They fell just short of winning the Champions League in 2009 and 2011, losing on both occasions to a Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona, who were managed by Pep Guardiola. United’s struggles since Ferguson’s 2013 retirement have meant they’ve not contested a Champions League semifinal in more than a decade.

FIFA Club World Cup list of champions

Here’s a comprehensive list of FIFA Club World Cup winners since the competition’s inception in 2000. (There was no competition held in 2001, 2002, 2003 or 2004).

Year Host Winners Runners-up
2000 Brazil Corinthians (BRA) Vasco da Gama (BRA)
2005 Japan Sao Paulo (BRA) Liverpool (ENG)
2006 Japan Internacional (BRA) Barcelona (ESP)
2007 Japan AC Milan (ITA) Boca Juniors (ARG)
2008 Japan Manchester United (ENG) LDU Quito (ECU)
2009 UAE Barcelona (ESP) Estudiantes (ARG)
2010 UAE Inter Milan (ITA) TP Mazembe (DRC)
2011 Japan Barcelona (ESP) Santos (BRA)
2012 Japan Corinthians (BRA) Chelsea (ENG)
2013 Morocco Bayern Munich (GER) Raja (MAR)
2014 Morocco Real Madrid (ESP) San Lorenzo (ARG)
2015 Japan Barcelona (ESP) River Plate (ARG)
2016 Japan Real Madrid (ESP) Kashima Antlers (JAP)
2017 UAE Real Madrid (ESP) Gremio (BRA)
2018 UAE Real Madrid (ESP) Al Ain (UAE)
2019 Qatar Liverpool (ENG) Flamengo (BRA)
2020 Qatar Bayern Munich (GER) Tigres (MEX)
2021 UAE Chelsea (ENG) Palmeiras (BRA)
2022 Morocco Real Madrid (ESP) Al Hilal (KSA)

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