My fears that we were facing a summer without top-class futbol have proven unfounded. The Confederations Cup tournament, now underway in Brazil, has been a nice reminder that in just over a year or so, there will come a moment when 30 or 40 percent of the world’s population will be simultaneously engaged in the same activity – watching the World Cup final. (And you heard it here first: Spain v. Argentina.) If there is a wisdom of crowds, surely this is telling us something about the species, no?
The Confederations Cup is a weird and interesting tournament. It’s held every 4 years, one year prior to the World Cup, in the host country – it serves as a kind of tuneup for the Big Show, both in terms of seeing whether the logistics (tickets, transport, field conditions, etc.) are all working well, and also to give the national team a first-class workout.
[This is a strange feature of the World Cup qualifying process. The host team -- Brazil, in this case - gets the home field advantage in the tournament, of course, which, in soccer, appears to be an even-more-prevalent phenomenon than in other major sports. But they suffer a serious disadvantage as well: Because they don't have to qualify for the tournament (they're given an automatic spot as the host), they don't have to go through a hard-fought qualifying campaign, a grueling series of high-pressure games that all of the rest of the world's countries are now going through. It can make it very, very difficult to forge a team -- or even to figure out who should be on the team -- when it hasn't played in any tough matches with the pressure turned up. So the Confederations Cup is designed to alleviate that problem a bit.]
It’s the host country plus the winners of the individual continent-wide national team tournaments: first and second place from Europe (Spain and Italy), plus the winners of N. America/Caribbean (Mexico), S. America (Uruguay), Africa (Nigeria), Asia (Japan), and Oceania (Tahiti — Tahiti!!).
It sets up, this year, some pretty tasty matchups. Sometimes, the teams that show up for tournaments like this are sub-par –a coach unwilling to risk injury to players in a tournament that doesn’t, after all, really “mean” anything (unlike the WC qualifiers, which matter a lot). But for various reasons, that didn’t happen this year – Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, and Japan defiinitely have their first teams on hand, and from the action thus far (the first-round games are still available, I think, at ESPN3.com) it looks like they’re all playing as though they mean it. The Brazilians have a lot to prove, too – they’re in a bit of a transition at the moment from old to young, and the pressure on them to perform well before the home crowds is beyond imagining.
And then there’s Spain. What Spain has been doing to world football over the past six years or so is truly breathtaking. They have not only won the last 3 major international tournaments — the Euro Championship in 2008, the 2010 World Cup, and the Euros again in 2012 — they have done so by obliterating their opponents, outscoring them 32-6 (!!) over the three tournaments, a ridiculous goal differential that has never been equaled at this level (not to mention humiliating Italy in the Euro 2012 final 4-0, the largest margin of victory in a major international final for over 75 years). They’ve brought a top-flight squad to Brazil this year – Spain has the luxury of being able to leave at home world-class talent (David Villa, Xabi Alonso) and still have world-class talent on the bench (Javi Martinez, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Torres) while fielding a fabulous team that goes out and demolishes a decent Uruguay squad. If you want to see what all the fuss over Spain and Spanish soccer is about, watch the replay of the Spain-Uruguay match – the words “utter domination” do not do it justice. Spain is completely transforming the way the game is played around the globe, in much the way that the Dutch did in the 70s and the Brazilians in the 50s and 60s, and it’s a joy to behold.
If all goes according to my plan, the semifinals will see Italy v Spain and Brazil v Uruguay, and a Spain-Brazil final — bring it on!