Glory, proving ground, experience: What Confederations Cup means for 8 contenders
- The FIFA Confederations Cup serves a different purpose for each of the eight, wide-ranging contenders heading to Russia.
FIFA took over administration of the Confederations Cup ahead of the third edition in 1997 and so decided to create a new trophy. The governing body had a blank slate. It could’ve gone in any direction. And what FIFA came up with was a golden globe sitting atop a sort of swirly column.
Seem derivative? Sound familiar?
The Confederations Cup features “two gold ribbons [that] are wrapped around the central body in a festive, dynamic movement.” The iconic World Cup trophy introduced in 1974 has “lines that spring out from the base, rising in spirals, stretching out to receive the world.” And they’re about the same height. The newer trophy is only 3.2 centimeters taller. From a distance, they’re almost interchangeable.
FIFA could’ve made something that set the Confederations Cup apart, something that indicated the honor was distinctive and worth winning. Instead, the new bauble symbolized the tournament’s place as a very poor-man’s version of the World Cup—a skinnier, less appealing version of the real thing that means different things to different nations. It’s a proving ground for smaller countries, sure. But it’s positioned as nothing more than a World Cup warm-up for others. And to some, it means almost nothing at all.
France, Italy and Germany (twice) each declined to participate in past editions. FIFA cut the frequency from once every two years to once every four and in 2005, it took honest stock of the the competition’s place on the football landscape and turned it into a World Cup dress rehearsal. For many, the Confederations Cup now is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. In 2015, as his U.S. team prepared to play Mexico for a spot in this month’s tournament, which kicks off Saturday, Jurgen Klinsmann spoke about the importance of getting an early look at Russian logistics and the rare opportunity to play European or South American sides in official competition. There wasn’t much talk about any glory, accomplishment or sporting immortality associated with the trophy itself.
For sure, there have been some memorable moments during the nine tournaments played since 1992. American fans will always savor the stunning semifinal upset of Spain in ‘09. Australia and Japan have also made unlikely runs to the final. The world got a good look at Ronaldinho’s potential in ’99 and mourned the death of Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé four years later. Cuauhtémoc Blanco scored six goals as Mexico triumphed in ’99, and the semipros of Tahiti yielded 24 in ’13. Spain’s historic reign finally ended that year. Kaká’s began in ’05.
Some of the entries in this summer’s tournament, like New Zealand or Cameroon, will hope to make memories of their own. For others, such as Russia or Mexico, there’s a chance to ease doubts. For world champion Germany, it’s merely a test of depth. For Chile and Portugal, there’s an opportunity to begin prepping for the long World Cup run they crave. This Confederations Cup, too, means something different to each participant. Two will contest the final on July 2 in St. Petersburg.
Here’s a look at this year’s teams.
Qualified as: 2015 CONCACAF Cup winner
Best previous finish: 1999 champion
Schedule: June 18 vs. Portugal, June 21 vs. New Zealand, June 24 at Russia
Meaning: Brazil isn’t the only nation haunted by a seven-goal ghost. El Tri’s humiliating 7—0 loss to Chile in last year’s Copa América Centenario quarterfinal will sting and linger until coach Juan Carlos Osorio and his talented team replace it with something better. Mexico falters too frequently outside CONCACAF, and it doesn’t want to head into the World Cup second-guessing itself. Osorio told SI.com recently that he felt “almost paralyzed” during the loss to Chile. “I had no Plan B,” he said. “Now we do, because from that experience we have learned so much. Now we have Plan B and even Plan C. We know how to react.” A run to the final will prove they do.
Qualified as: 2016 Oceania Nations Cup champion
Best previous finish: Group stage (three times)
Schedule: June 17 at Russia, June 21 vs. Mexico, June 24 vs. Portugal
Meaning: Australia’s departure to the Asian Football Confederation practically guarantees the Kiwis qualification for just about every FIFA competition, barring the occasional Tahitian miracle. New Zealand gets no competition in its vast, watery backyard, so it must rely on these infrequent opportunities to test itself against better sides. Only a handful of All-Whites, including San Jose Earthquakes defender Kip Colvey and PEC Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas, play for top-tier clubs outside Australia or New Zealand.
Qualified as: 2016 European Championship champion
Best previous finish: First appearance
Schedule: June 18 vs. Mexico, June 21 at Russia, June 24 vs. New Zealand
Meaning: Nobody grinds out results like Cristiano Ronaldo, and his knack for mastering the moment—or surviving and advancing—spread to his Portuguese teammates last summer. It was ugly. It was drudgery. But at the end, after scoring five goals in 450 minutes of knockout-round soccer, A Selecção was European champ. Most of that squad is back, even though it would be understandable if Ronaldo, Pepe, João Moutinho and other busy stars needed a break. The Portuguese core is aging. But momentum must be maintained, and winning is its own reward. “I hope Portugal is lucky enough to win yet another trophy for the first time in history,” Ronaldo said. “It would be beautiful.”
Qualified as: Host
Best previous finish: First appearance
Schedule: June 17 vs. New Zealand, June 21 vs. Portugal, June 24 vs. Mexico
Meaning: Russia isn’t exactly heading toward its World Cup on a good run. Concern surrounding its bid, its geopolitics, worker safety and hooliganism dominate the headlines while its struggling national team kills time as an automatic qualifier. It has played only four friendlies this year, and the Confederations Cup represents its only chance since a winless Euro run to contest competitive matches. There are questions to be answered as Russia, which is comprised entirely of domestic talent and has only one player who’s scored more than five international goals, hopes to avoid a humiliating exit next summer.
Qualified as: 2015 Asian Cup champion
Best previous finish: 1997 runner-up
Schedule: June 19 vs. Germany, June 22 vs. Cameroon, June 25 vs. Chile
Meaning: The Socceroos joined Asia in 2005 in search of better competition, and the move has been a smashing success. Australia has qualified for every World Cup since then and advanced to the past two Asian Cup finals, winning in ’15. All but two players on the Confederations Cup team now play outside Australia. The next step is to compete with South American and European powers, and it’ll get one of each this month. The draw is tough, and the task will be tougher without injured captain Mile Jedinak, who plays for Aston Villa. "It's about the experience of what we've done in the last two-and-half-years and to build on it," the ageless Tim Cahill said. “The Confed Cup is where we really put it into practice and make a mark on the world stage.”
Qualified as: 2017 African Cup of Nations champion
Best previous finish: 2003 runner-up
Schedule: June 18 vs. Chile, June 22 vs. Australia, June 25 vs. Germany
Meaning: Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to Colombia and the loss of Montreal Impact defender Ambroise Oyongo to a knee injury aren’t good omens for a team expected to struggle and a federation whose politics are in controversy. Benjamin Moukandjo (Lorient) and Vincent Aboubakar (Besiktas) can score goals, but this is mostly a young or unproven team. Coach Hugo Broos will hope some answers emerge this month that might help the Lions get their World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.
Qualified as: 2015 Copa América champion
Best previous finish: First appearance
Schedule: June 18 vs. Cameroon, June 22 vs. Germany, June 25 vs. Australia
Meaning: For decades, Chile couldn't get out of its own way. Then Marcelo Bielsa took over in 2007, overhauled tactics and culture and created the foundation for a team that shut down Lionel Messi in the past two Copa América finals. Chile now understands what it means, and what it takes, to be a champion. And coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has brought his first-choice squad to Russia. Do well there—and that means reaching the final—and Chile can return next summer (assuming it survives the CONMEBOL gauntlet) with the sort of swagger usually reserved for its South American rivals.
Qualified as: 2014 World Cup champion
Best previous finish: 2005 third place
Schedule: June 19 vs. Australia, June 22 vs. Chile, June 25 vs. Cameroon
Meaning: Remember when Germany’s World Cup-winning goal was scored by a substitute off an assist from a substitute who replaced a guy who wasn't supposed to be starting? That’s symbolic of how deep Joachim Löw’s player pool is. Even though Germany hasn’t won the Confederations Cup, defending its world title next summer is far more important. So Löw is resting most of his first-choice team this summer while he takes a look at players in frame to make a run for a spot on next year’s return trip to Russia. There’s still plenty of talent. Germany can field Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Julian Draxler, Liverpool midfielder Emre Can, Barcelona goalie Marc-André ter Stegen and two of the more promising pieces to emerge from the German pipeline in recent years, Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich and Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt. Those players and more will hit the Russian turf running in 2018.