THE Club World Cup got under way yesterday, 132 years since Hibs became the first team with the temerity to call themselves the best club side on the planet. Scottish Cup winners in 1887, the Hibees got the better of English FA Cup semi-finalists Preston North End and – like Super Bowl or World Series winners – swiftly declared themselves the best team in the world.

Celtic had a decent case for making that same declaration in 1967, when they took on Copa Libertadores winners Racing Club in the Intercontinental Cup. In fact, had away goals been a factor, Celtic would have been winners, after their 1-0 win from the first leg at Hampden was followed by a 2-1 defeat in Buenos Aires.

Instead, the outcome was decided by a play-off just three days later in “neutral” Uruguay. Featuring six red cards – four for Celtic and two for Racing – and numerous incursions on to the pitch by riot police, the match became known as the Battle of Montevideo.

Such clashes weren’t uncommon in this competition, with another lawless encounter just two years later between AC Milan and another Argentinian side, Estudiantes. With Estudiantes trailing 3-0 from the first match, again matters got out of hand in the tie back in Latin America. Not only were two Italian players assaulted on the pitch, but the visitors’ Nestor Combin, an Argentine-born French international, was stretchered off after some brutal treatment by the hosts, and then was arrested as he left the stadium for draft-dodging.

With ugly clashes between players and supporters, and subsequent boycotts by European champions, it was something of a miracle the Intercontinental, then Toyota Cup, limped on until 2004 when it merged with FIFA’s Club World Cup, which had begun in 2000.

That inaugural competition was perhaps the only time it has enjoyed any real profile in Britain when Manchester United took part. Amid much fanfare and under pressure from the FA and the government to compete in the competition in Brazil to boost England’s hopes of hosting the 2006 World Cup, Sir Alex Ferguson negotiated a winter break for his treble-winning team and they pulled out of their defence of the FA Cup.

But once again, events on the field didn’t turn out as planned. Finding themselves ill-prepared and playing in energy-sapping 90 degree heat, United crashed out at the group stage, their only win of the three games coming in a deserted Maracana Stadium against Australian part-timers South Melbourne.

There was a 1-1 draw against Mexican outfit Necaxa, in which David Beckham was sent off in disgrace and Ferguson swiftly followed him up the tunnel for dissent. And a humbling by an Edmundo-inspired Vasco da Gama side.

Not that it did Manchester United too much harm in the long run. Benefiting from a 26-day break from all league action at the turn of the year, what was then a closely-fought three-way shootout between themselves, leaders Leeds and Arsenal became a procession, with Manchester United taking the title by 18 points.

This is the backdrop as Liverpool take part in the competition in Qatar. With Andy Robertson having already called himself champion of Europe, why not the world?

It remains to be seen whether Liverpool’s involvement will see this competition get off the ground but it isn’t going away any time soon. Fifa president Gianni Infantino is determined to use it as a major prop of his plans for world domination, with a new expanded format – up to 24 teams from seven – set to start in June 2021.

This move is vehemently opposed by top European clubs who already see the Champions League or a future European Super League as the best club competition on the planet.

But when push comes to shove, will they hold the line when financial incentives are being offered?

A genuine global club competition has never quite got off the ground but there is no shortage of countries out there – some of them with unpalatable human rights records – willing to pay big bucks to make it happen and money makes the world go round.

And another thing

MARGINAL gains make a huge difference in sport. If they didn’t, top sports stars and clubs would not be so obsessed with trying to find them. The only problem is when people are prepared to blur or even trample across ethical lines in their pursuit.

In the world of American football, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has brought us the original Spygate – when he was caught videotaping New York Jets defensive signals from an unauthorised location – and Deflategate – when his team were found to have illegally deflated match footballs to put Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck at a disadvantage.

Now, a team of Patriots media staff just happened to gain accreditation to a Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals match last week and were spotted making eight minutes of recordings of the Bengals’ defensive signals.

Belichick swears he knew nothing of it but if the confiscated recording is damning, the NFL have to take action, particularly as Belichick is a repeat offender.

This is one marginal gain which could result in a significant loss.