Sunday 14 June ~
Draw the curtains, chill the beers, hunker down in your armchair, and tell your family and friends not to bother calling you for two weeks. Yes, football freaks, it’s time for… the Confederations Cup. OK, cancel all that stuff about the beer and the curtains. It’s an international summer tournament all right, but not one you could really get your teeth into without first suspending your disbelief – a disbelief in the concept of an eight-team tournament pitting the champions of each confederation against each other, with a World Cup winner and a host thrown in for good measure. It’s FIFA’s hobbling international equivalent of the World Club Cup.
As an organisational dry run for the World Cup, you can see why it works for FIFA. After all, if a worthy committee man finds room service at his hotel a little slow during the Confed Cup, he can always switch his accommodation in time for the bigger event one year later. That football’s top functionaries are prepared to sacrifice time and energy testing out the facilities should be a comfort to us all. And if it hadn’t been for the 2005 Confederations Cup in Germany, you can bet that leaky roof at Frankfurt’s Waldstadion would not have been fixed if it hadn’t been witnessed by an international audience watching whatever game it was we were watching. It would have been patched up with a couple of sausage skins and a short prayer that it wouldn’t rain the following summer.
It’s telling that the leaky roof is the easiest event to recall from those games four years ago. There were lots of goals and positive football, but that’s the kind of play you can expect in what are basically exhibition games for corporate guests. The most memorable incident at the 2003 tournament in France was the on-field collapse and death of Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foe. The second most memorable incident was that, shamefully, FIFA did not cancel the rest of the games, though at least they lengthened the gaps between tournaments from two to four years.
Coaches more than anyone else love the tournament. “It is a great chance to have all the players together in unusual conditions,” Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said this week. “None of my players has played in Africa before.” When the US won the 2007 Gold Cup – the unloved Central and North American regional championship which clinched their qualification for the Confed Cup – they talked about the vital preparation it would afford them for the main event, and then sent a third-string squad to the much more prestigious Copa America to get predictably battered. For teams like the US, Egypt and New Zealand, the Confed Cup represents a rare chance to play quality European and South American opposition.
That’s all well and good for the US and Egypt, but the creation of this fake and pointless jamboree has given its participants an unfair advantage over the rest of the World Cup field. Why should the US, for example, have an advantage over regional rivals like Costa Rica and Mexico just because they won a Mickey Mouse tournament that they always host? You could argue that Brazil and Spain are there on merit, having won the Copa America and the European Championship respectively, and therefore they have earned the advantage of the extra preparation. But if these nations are already strong enough to win their regional competitions, they hardly need any further perks.
Meanwhile, the lack of interest among the South African fans has been registered through moribund seat sales, and the organisers have ended up selling blocks of tickets to corporations in the hope that they will pass them on to employees and customers. Brazil v Italy in Group B is reportedly sold out, and so is the final on June 28, while a healthy crowd is expected for today’s opener between South Africa and Iraq. But even if they end up letting people in for free to fill the stands for Iraq v New Zealand, it won’t alter the fact that by this time next year, the name of the tournament’s leading scorer will probably escape you. Then again, if it’s raining outside and the cricket’s off, you might as well just check in and see how many Manchester City players are in the Brazil team these days. If you draw the curtains very tightly and drink enough beer, you might be able to pretend it’s the real thing. Ian Plenderleith