Eugene Fogarty previews the Confederations Cup, a competition that offers respite from all that transfer nonsense.
The Confederations Cup kicks off on Saturday evening in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, as the host nation take on Japan in the opening game. A year from the main event, much of the focus over the next couple of weeks will be on the home side as they attempt to form a settled side that can live up to the expectations upon them at next summer’s World Cup finals.
That may prove difficult for the Brazilians however , as they are placed in the more difficult of the two groups with 2011 Gold Cup winners Mexico, Euro 2012 finalists Italy and the Japanese, who won the Asian Cup two years ago in Qatar.
The Japanese come into the tournament as strong as they have potentially ever been, with a handful of players cutting it at major clubs across Europe, such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Yuto Nagatomo. Not only that, but their place in Brazil next year is already secured following a 1-1 draw with Australia last week, which they added to in midweek with a victory over Iraq to win their qualifying group.
Italy enter this tournament on something of a technicality. Since Spain had already qualified as World Champions, the place offered to the winners of Euro 2012 went to the tournament’s runners-up instead. Cesare Prandelli will welcome this opportunity, however, to gel a squad and team capable of competing next summer.
La Nazionale are well placed to qualify for the World Cup but their form lately has been inconsistent, hitting highs like their second half comeback in March’s friendly with Brazil, and lows such as this weeks draw with Haiti in Rio de Janeiro. One imagines, if Milan duo Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaawary aren’t firing then it could be an early exit for the Azzurri, much like four years ago in South Africa.
Mexico could well be the beneficiaries, even if they do continue to stumble their way through World Cup qualification. Despite that, El Tri have long been a scourge to Brazil, particularly in the Copa America, and most recently in the Olympic final at Wembley last August, when the North and Central American champions won the gold medal. The result ultimately led to the dismissal of Mano Menezes from his position as Brazil’s head coach.
The post is now held by the man who led his country to victory at the 2002 World Cup, Luis Felipe Scolari. Results since Big Phil’s return, however, have been mediocre, and had yet to feature a victory over top tier opposition until their 3-0 friendly victory over France in Porto Alegre last weekend.
With only 12 months until showtime, Scolari needs to use this tournament to finally find a settled side. The experience of Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and David Luiz, combined with the youthful potential of Oscar, Lucas Moura and Neymar should be the makings of an exciting side capable of winning this tournament at least, even if victory at home next year currently looks beyond them. However, if La Selecao, two-time defending champions, can find some momentum and confidence over the next two weeks then there are no limits to their potential.
Group B pits World and European Champions Spain against this year’s African Cup of Nations winners Nigeria, 2011 Copa America champions Uruguay and somehow, Tahiti, who won the OFC Nations Cup.
Spain begin their attempt to win the only trophy that has eluded them since 2008 on Sunday night against Uruguay in Recife. Four years ago, La Roja were surprisingly beaten in the semi finals by a high energy USA side, but with arguably their strongest squad yet the Spaniards arrive as firm favourites for the title. Although, with the supposed jinx condemning the winning country of this trophy to not win the following World Cup, maybe Vicente Del Bosque’s side would prefer to walk away empty handed.
La Seleccion’s warm-up games have included a routine victory over Ireland in New York, and back in March they defeated France in Paris when it really mattered, in a crucial World Cup qualifier. Therefore, if Spain firmly set their sights on winning the Confederations Cup, it is theirs for the taking.
Group rivals Uruguay will be hoping to join the Spanish in the last four. The South American champions may not currently be the force of 2010 and ‘11, but they got their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track in recent days with an away win over a fast-improving Venezuela, and if Oscar Washington Tabarez can motivate his side once more, they may cause an upset in Brazil yet again.
Surprise African champions Nigeria may not even make it to Brazil on time for their first outing on Monday, against Tahiti. The squad have apparently gone on strike over payments that have been withheld and missed their flight to Rio. When they inevitably do arrive in South America, their stay will likely be short-lived, unless they can once again conjure the spirit of last February in South Africa. Any team built around John Mikel Obi, however, is not to be relied upon.
Tahiti make up the eight-strong field for the ninth edition of the FIFA Confederations Cup. The Pacific island nation bring a squad made up of 22 home-based players and one other who plays his club football in France. Tahiti qualified for the tournament by defeating New Caledonia in the Solomon Islands in the final of the Oceania Nations Cup in 2012. Incidentally, the islanders have no chance of returning to Brazil next summer and will surely be playing for no more than pride over the next week or so.
The Confederations Cup final will take place on July 30th in Rio’s Maracana Stadium. For the host nation, this competition is a great opportunity to show that they are ready to host the main event in a year’s time, as well as a major chance to form a team capable of competing with Spain, Germany and Argentina when it really matters.
For most of the other nations, it offers the prospect of experiencing Brazil’s varying weather conditions, experimenting with line-ups in competitive games and creating momentum with only one year to go until the real business kicks off. If this year’s instalment is anything like the last two, in South Africa in 2009 and Germany four years previously, then the tournament promises to unpredictable, thoroughly enjoyable and most importantly, overloaded with goals.