To most people outside of the eight countries taking part, the Confederations Cup is not going to mean much. You would be forgiven for thinking that this is just another FIFA competition that we don’t need on the already overcrowded calendar. If it was not being held in Brazil, one year ahead of the World Cup, then there would be even more apathy towards it.
But this year’s field looks stronger and more appealing than ever before. Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico from Latin America, Italy and Spain from Europe, Japan from Asia, Tahiti from god knows where and Nigeria, the latest African Cup of Nations winners.
It’s arguably the first time anyone is going to take the competition seriously. Brazil will relish the chance to play competitive games after two years of playing friendlies. Because of this, Brazil are currently ranked 22nd in the world, behind such powerhouses as Ecuador, Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Brazil will see it as a “scene-setter” for the real thing in 2014. This has been the case in 2001 (Japan), 2005 (Germany) and 2009 (South Africa). The eyes of the world are on Brazil at the moment, questioning whether they will be ready to host the World Cup. So far, stadium issues and protests have hampered the smooth-running of the preparations, but the Confederations Cup (tagged ‘the festival of champions’) will surely pave the way.
Brazil will kick-off the tournament – they are the holders after beating the USA 3-2 in Jo’burg in 2009 – against Japan, a team that became the first to qualify competitively for 2014. Japan, the strongest team in Asia, largely thanks to a significant Bundesliga influence and an Italian coach, Alberto Zaccheroni, earned their place in the finals after drawing 1-1 with Australia at the start of June. Japan actually reached the final of the Confederations Cup in 2001 when they were beaten by France 1-0 in Yokohama.
Brazil have won the competition three times – in 1997 (6-0 v Australia), 2005 (4-1 v Argentina) and in 2009. They were runners-up in 1999 when they lost 3-4 to Mexico, who were the host nation.
This time around, Brazil will also be anxious to test their squad and gauge how much work they need to do before 2014 comes around. The signs are not over-positive at present. Too much is expected of Neymar, the cartoon character who is bound for Barcelona. Brazil have won just twice in nine games, the most recent being a 3-0 victory against France last week in Porto Alegre. While the cameras are all focused on Neymar, the ominously-named Fred is another of those seemingly clumsy Brazilian strikers that can score goals.
Japan will be no pushovers, though – they have beaten Argentina and France in recent games. English fans will be aware of Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, but Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), Takashi Inui (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Shinji Okazaki (VFB Stuttgart) are also players worth taking a second look at.
Both groups are interesting, with Brazil also meeting Mexico, the highly-fancied Olympic champions who have so far struggled to get to grips with World Cup qualification, and Italy. The other group will see Spain and Uruguay slug it out with Tahiti and Nigeria. Everyone will be hoping for a Brazil v Spain final or even a rematch of the 1950 World Cup, in which Uruguay denied host nation Brazil victory in the mighty Maracana.
While the Confederations Cup may have more cachet this year, you still have to wonder why there is a competition for the various continental champions. Would it not be more appropriate to give these teams automatic qualification for the World Cup? Then it really would be a meeting of champions…