Quick, what’s your favourite Confederations Cup moment? Anyone? Yeah, me neither. It’s hard to love a competition that at its core seems to struggle just to convince that it should exist. Given that it started as a way to get international teams to play in Saudi Arabia (only being brought under FIFA’s organisation the third time it was staged) it’s unsurprising that its reputation has been of a set of glorified exhibition games. We have a competition to decide the best team between regional champions, it’s called the World Cup. Anything else seems superfluous. At least all the teams invited have started turning up (Germany and France have declined in the past). This year’s may be the first when most of the teams could really do with winning it.
The real reason it exists (since 2005) has been as a dry run for hosting the World Cup. As FIFA’s four year travelling nation state has grown larger and larger this has become more and more prevalent in their thinking. With Brazil apparently falling behind on everything you get the feeling that they could do with a mini-tournament hosted without any major hitches more than FIFA could. Sepp Blater’s every World Cup host country is chaos a year before the event speech won’t convince everyone. Given that Brazil have effectively known they’d be hosting for nine years if they’re not halfway prepared now you wonder if they ever will be.
The sense of it being series of exhibition matches in all but name is cemented by the fact that Brazil have won it three times. For a couple of decades they’ve been the undisputed kings of the far flung friendly, pitching up far from home to play anyone who’ll pay to have them. This time they need success a lot more than in previous events. Big Phil’s most recent stint is still in its infancy and he could do with gathering enough kudos to keep the public on his side until next summer. They need games tough enough to challenge them. If they don’t get them here they’ll be dangerously undercooked this time next year. The dry run of the infrastructure could be as important. They should find it confirmed that they have work to do. Settling back into the Maracana could be the biggest challenge, a stadium in the past that’s been so demanding to its home team that in the past the Brazilian players have asked not to play there. The ghosts of losing the final as hosts in 1950 need exorcising. Do that and get more of an idea of their best team and they should consider it a success.
Challenging Brazil for the titles of friendly kings recently have been Spain; a game against Panama last November that the Spanish FA pocketed £4 million for and that Cesc Fabregas described as pointless being a particular highlight. This has all added to the feeling that their best players are beginning to feel a bit jaded. The Champions League semi finals certainly gave evidence to support that view. After two European Championships and a World Cup there’s a sense of them as the football equivalent of Alexander, looking around and weeping with no more world’s left to conquer. They’ve been careful to say publically that they want to win the Confederations Cup to complete the set. You sense tiredness, mental as well as physical is the main factor against them. On form they should still be the team to beat. If they lose their momentum for next year could disappear. The next couple of weeks should tell us if that group of players has one last hurrah left in them.
And then there’s the others. Uruguay might fancy reawakening the spirit of 1950 themselves. Since finishing fourth in South Africa they’ve struggled to reach that form again, putting qualifying for 2014 in doubt (although a recent win against Venezuela has lifted some of the gloom). They’ve got a generation coming to the end of the road together with doubts over who will replace them. Forlan and Lugano in particular will do well to make it another year. They still have to work out a way to get the best out of Cavani and Suarez simultaneously. Anything beyond the semis will probably be beyond them. Italy are in the midst of a rebuilding process that it taking slightly longer than they would have hoped for. They could also do with Balotelli discovering both his Milan form and some discipline. Good luck on either. Nigeria have struggled badly since winning the Cup of Nations. The Super Eagles can be dangerous but aren’t expected to do anything here. Mexico are another team out of form. Japan should perform admirably and lose more than they win. And Tahiti get to have a nice holiday and hopefully don’t get embarrassed too much.
It’s tough to see beyond either Spain or with the benefit of home support, Brazil. Almost the best that could happen is Spain beating Brazil in the final, leaving them in no doubt as to the amount of work to do before next year. Ultimately the biggest question is how Brazil will cope with the pressure of being hosts, both on and off the field. They should have concerns on both.