The Confederations Cup has taken a good deal of abuse in its short lifetime, mostly because it has seemed to be an unnecessary tournament, a money-making event imposed on already overworked players.
It was first played, as a rather vaguely defined affair, in 1992 -- organized by, and played in, Saudi Arabia. It had all the appearance of a prestige-buying venture by the Saudis. The champions of the FIFA Confederations played each other and were very well paid for doing so, but what were they competing for? Surely not to decide who was the world champion -- that title belonged irrevocably to the World Cup winners. An indisputable fact that left the Confederations Cup as an event that it was difficult to take seriously.
FIFA, no doubt feeling that if there was to be such a competition, featuring the top teams from its own Confederations, then it ought to be FIFA that organized it. So FIFA took it over in 1997. Since then it has been played six times and has slowly settled into its now accepted role. Played in the year before each World Cup, it serves as a sort of dry-run for the World Cup. Not so much for the teams involved, as for the organization of the upcoming World Cup -- an opportunity to test stadiums, security, transport and all that stuff.
Which is not a bad idea, but in no way tells us whether the teams involved are taking the games seriously. With really nothing at stake, why would they? We can thank Bob Bradley’s USA team in the 2005 tournament in South Africa for exposing the irrelevance of that question with a swashbuckling performance that saw it beat Spain before falling to Brazil in the final. The soccer was good, and the desire of the Americans to win the final -- against the determination of the Brazilians not to lose -- produced a memorable game.
I repeat -- the soccer was good. And the thought was there, throughout the short tournament, that the game looked better this way, played without the constricting, almost suffocating pressure to, at all costs, avoid failure. The sort of pressure that, increasingly, smothers the excitement of too many World Cup games.
There was simply no comparison between the flamboyant excitement of the five-goal Brazil-USA Confederations Cup final, and the agonizingly drawn-out battle of attrition that was the one-goal World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands a year later.
So, I think there is reason to look kindly on this tournament. Spain, for instance. Four years ago, Spain took the world title with a series of rather dour 1-0 wins -- deliberately dour games, because that’s the way Spain’s opponents wanted them to be, with dogged defense dominating. Spain survived the cynicism (not to mention the brutality of the Dutch in the final) but its triumph cannot be remembered as a series of glittering games. We rarely got to see the scintillating soccer that Spain is capable of, and there is virtually nothing to remember about Spain’s defense-driven opponents. Only Chile chose to play attacking soccer -- it lost anyway, as did the others, but it lost in style.
The fear is that the same tactics will confront Spain again next year. But not right now, surely not in this Confederations Cup. Spain faces Nigeria, Uruguay and Tahiti in Group B, hardly what you’d call a group of death. Nigeria is struggling, Uruguay even more so and may not even qualify for next year’s tournament, while Tahiti ... well, its presence seems designed to justify the critics who still consider the CC a rinky-dink affair.
Consider: of the eight teams taking part, Spain is ranked No. 1 in the world by FIFA, Italy No. 8, Mexico No. 17, Uruguay No. 19, Brazil No. 22. Then comes Nigeria at No. 31 and Japan No. 32. After that we have to scroll down for a further 106 places before we can retrieve Tahiti -- ranked at No. 138. That’s 10 places below Puerto Rico, which most people will be surprised to learn is treated by FIFA as a sovereign-soccer-playing country.
Tahiti is there by right - it won the Oceania championship. It is a genuine Confederation champion. Which of course raises the same old question - how genuine a Confederation is Oceania? It almost looks as though FIFA is confusing its own tiny Confederation with George Orwell’s Oceania in his novel 1984 -- that was a vast superstate vying for world superiority. The FIFA version has always been a small area, made even less significant in 2006 when Australia defected to become part of the Asian Confederation.
Even Oceania’s ostensibly strongest nation, New Zealand, is ranked no higher than No. 57 by FIFA. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Tahiti in this tournament is that it didn’t find itself drawn in the same group as Brazil. Soccer followers are inured to seeing the host team part of the weakest group. Not this time -- Brazil will have to get past Italy, Mexico and Japan. But again, one looks as those teams, and there is the promise of flowing games there, if attacking tactics are employed. One would hope that Brazil as the hosts and, traditionally, the world’s most offense-minded team, will oblige. Mexico desperately needs to show that it can score goals -- its soccer is excellent, but getting the ball in the opponent’s net almost looks like a lost art for them. Japan is always lively -- I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Japanese team play in a defensive formation. Which leaves Italy, which carries that historical burden of being the masters of defensive soccer, the great 1-0 winners of all time. They have looked more adventurous in recent years -- surely this tournament is a perfect opportunity to show the world this new face of Italian soccer.
Let me continue with my possibly inane thoughts that we might get a high-scoring tournament here. Inane they may be, but not nearly as batty as the comments related to high-scoring that are provoked, as is now routine, by the new ball. Yes, there is a new ball for the tournament, manufactured by adidas; it’s called the Cafusa, though Confuser might have been a better title. Brazil has been playing warm-up exhibition games, but not with that ball. Because Brazil is a Nike-sponsored team, so they’ve been using a Nike ball. Now they have only a few days of practice to get used to the Cafusa.
So here we go again with all the tripe about the eccentricities of a new ball. How about this, from Brazilian striker Fred: “For strikers, this ball is wonderful. When you shoot, it swerves three different ways and then goes into the net. The goalkeepers will suffer with it for sure.”
Sure sounds like the keepers don’t stand a chance. So, plenty of scoring? Forget it. Well, not because of the ball, no. Every tournament, every new ball, we hear this nonsense, and virtually every tournament shows a decline in the goalscoring rate. Believe me, the keepers will do OK.
Maybe we could get an extra goal -- just one -- in this tournament because we’ll be seeing goal line technology in action. That is, we may see it, if there is a disputed goal-line incident. If there isn’t one of those, then a lot of money will have been spent to no avail. Anyway, things could be negatively oriented -- it is quite possible that GLT will turn down a goal that the referee might otherwise have given.
I fear that goal-scoring is much more likely to be affected by the presence of Tahiti than of GLT. Qualifying out of Group B might well be matter of goal difference, which suggests that teams might feel the best way to increase their spread will be by racking up goals ... against Tahiti.
Good luck Tahiti. Who knows? Four years ago no one gave the USA a chance in a group that included both Italy and Brazil. Yet they made it all the way to the final. I can’t see Tahiti repeating that achievement, but as idle thoughts go, it’s a rather pleasing one.