In Defense of the Confeds

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The Confederations Cup – often perceived as little more than a tune-up for the World Cup – is an infinitely interesting competition. While the sides that participate are often international powers (Spain, Italy, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico participated in this year’s installment), the overwhelming sense is that it isn’t a competition that has to be won. Indeed, it’s the only major international competition Spain hasn’t won, having been knocked out in the semifinals in 2009 to, gasp, the United States. And it’s exactly this sense of indifference that makes it so exciting, often bordering on the exotic. Without fear of losing, caution is thrown to the wind as the matches are there to be won.

Lacking the glory and prestige of the European Championships and the World Cup, the Confederations Cup is a chance for the larger powers to experiment, to tinker, and to ultimately attack. While the Euros and World Cups are often devoid of the swashbuckling sides who venture forward unafraid to concede, the Confederations Cup exists for precisely such purpose. Consider the play of this year’s participants: Spain has, for the first time since they conquered world football, abandoned the safety of the double pivot. Italy, a side notorious for its defensive tactics, failed to keep a clean sheet in three group matches, conceding four to Brazil, three to Japan, and one to Mexico. While Brazil has restored their place among the top sides in the world after a difficult three years, taking nine points from nine in their opening group (including a 4-2 win against Italy). Japan, everyone’s favorite 2014 dark-horse not named Belgium, both dazzled and disappointed, simultaneously instilling confidence while failing to live up to the increased expectation.

And all this without mentioning the tournament darlings, Tahiti. Having qualified for their first major competition, Tahiti boasts a squad with just a single professional footballer, one Marama Vahirua, who plays his club football for Panthrakikos. Yet despite their limitations, the Tahitians refused to park the bus or to accept defeat, playing instead an attacking brand of football, complete with their very own offside trap – a strategy that was not ultimately rewarded. Conceding twenty-four goals in just three matches, Tahiti’s tournament was expectedly short, although having netted a goal against Nigeria, their performance almost seems impressive.

Leaving behind team performances, the matches themselves have been every bit the entertainment the Confederations Cup has come to provide. Having been devoid of a truly exciting World Cup since the mid to late 90’s, the open, attacking brand of football played in Brazil has been a gift to be cherished. Surely the match of the tournament thus far (although a potential Spain/Brazil final certainly leaves us salivating), Italy’s absurd 4-3 win against Japan provided a little bit of everything: two lead changes as Italy overturned an early 2-nil deficit, only to see Japan tie the match at three before they disappointingly (and undeservedly) conceded a fourth late at the death; two terrible penalty awards; and an own goal. Truly, footballing entertainment at its peak.

On an individual level, we’ve seen both the good and the bad of several high-profile players. Neymar has responded brilliantly to the impossibly high expectations that come with the title of “next great Brazilian,” scoring three goals in three and winning all three available Man of the Match titles. Likewise, Diego Forlan has turned back time in his one and a half matches – once in a substitute appearance against Spain and the other with a Man of the Match performance against Nigeria (he was rested against Tahiti in preparation for Uruguay’s semifinal against Brazil) – reestablishing himself as an indispensable player for La Celeste. And as for the bad, Gigi Buffon’s poor tournament has begun to elicit questions as to Italy’s goalkeeping situation: could it finally be time for him to step aside? While aside for one sterling free-kick in the opening match, Buffon’s club and Italian teammate Andrea Pirlo has struggled to impress, especially in the match against Japan. While most likely little more than aberrations taken from a small sample size, both players’ poor form has certainly made life harder on coach Cesare Prandelli, who will need both men at their best if they are to exact revenge on Spain in their semifinal encounter on Thursday.

The 2013 Confeds edition has been used by teams with legitimate hopes of 2014 success as an opportunity to tweak formations, build confidence and correct problems. Vicente del Bosque has used the competition as a chance to try a new, more direct approach, perhaps hoping a new wrinkle in an old system will combat complacency while yielding further success for a side that has won almost everything.

For Brazil, it is a confidence builder; dropping all the way to 22nd in the newest FIFA rankings (barely above Mali who find themselves at 23), the Seleção were in desperate need for a successful tournament. And while Neymar has deservedly received the plaudits, it’s the defense, anchored by Thiago Silva and David Luiz, having conceded just two goals in three matches (and none in the first two) that have Brazil again dreaming of winning the Cup on home soil. 

For Uruguay and Mexico, two teams that have struggled mightily in World Cup qualifying, this tournament was supposed to provide the opportunity to right past wrongs and return to qualifying with a renewed sense of hope. And while Uruguay, fresh off their successful navigation of a tricky group, might have accomplished exactly that, Mexico return home having earned just three points, while being routinely outplayed for long stretches. In desperate need of answers, Chepo de la Torro was instead bombarded with only more questions, the biggest of which involves his future. 

After a week and a half of open and dramatic football, four teams went home: Tahiti’s fairy tale was brought to a close, Mexico found little to no hope for their future qualifiers, Japan’s attacking style yielded a disappointing zero points, while Nigeria leaves desperately hoping they can find a striker with a knack for finishing. The knockout stages, as many would have expected, left us four traditionally great sides – indeed, all four semifinalists have won World Cups.

As Brazil’s dramatic 2-1 win against Uruguay in the semi-finals put the hosts through to the final, all that is left to be decided is who they’ll play. And with a dream final between the newest Brazilian generation and mighty Spain now within reach, the unfairly derided and oft-maligned Confederations Cup has perhaps saved the best for last.

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