So, farewell to the 2013 Confederations Cup, that dose of methadone for the football junkie which has broken up a summer that might otherwise have been notable for Sky Sports News switching to live coverage of the tumbleweed blowing around the Premier League’s London headquarters, then. This isn’t to say that tournament has no uses. As Queens is to Wimbledon, it acts as an effective warm up for some of those expected to be amongst the major players when the world descends upon Brazil next summer, and if the World Cup finals have to be tightly monitored, heavily orchestrated show-business event, then it probably is for the best that the hosts get some sort of rehearsal for it all. We can only imagine what might happen if Sepp Blatter were to turn up for its opening match next summer, only to find that someone had used wood-chip for the pitches rather than grass, while the selected match ball was a cannon ball, painted white and with an Adidas sticker plastered clumsily across it.
On the pitch, there was plenty to keep us entertained, from the ham-fisted yet full-hearted attempts of the Oceania champions Airstrip One – sorry, Tahiti – to keep the number of goals that they conceded in each match down to single figures, for which, as statistics fiends will already be fully aware, they managed a sixty-seven per cent completion rate, to the rebirth of Brazil as a global football force, which might have been a surprise but for the fact that a) this is Brazil we’re talking about here, and b) they were playing all of their matches at home, when there might be a possibility that a combination of a lack of competitive matches over the last couple of years and the team’s mutation into Nike’s football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters could have affected results and subsequently their FIFA ranking. In last night’s final, however, they demolished Spain with a panache that has been largely missing from their game since the salad days of Ronaldinho and Ronaldo in Japan and South Korea in 2002. They wanted to win it, they had the capability to win it, and they played to the fullness of that capability.
Spain, meanwhile, reverted to a type that will already be familiar to those amongst us that are over thirty years old. The sort of slapdash performance that they put in last night is already familiar to us from the days when they were sold – erroneously, as the last five years have proved – as the ‘perpetual underachievers’ of international football. Those of us who remember their 1982 World Cup finals team, who looked like nothing so much as a group of insurance salesmen who’d got lost on a stadium tour of the Bernebeu and been mistaken for a real football team and who stumbled through to the second round of that tournament before fizzling out with the exuberance of of a funeral held in the middle of a monsoon season, were back in familiar territory. Defensive clearances made as if wearing roller skates rather than football boots? Check. Penalty kick dragged miserably wide of the post, leading to fist-punching from a goalkeeper trying to fool the world into believing that somehow he’d had something to do with this cack-handedness? Check. Utterly needless red card as arsenic-laced icing on an already dismal evening? Check, of course.
It would be foolish to write a team of this quality off on the basis of a match against the hosts in a tournament that inhabits a curious netherworld somewhere between those weird pre-season tournaments with corporate names played for the benefit of cable television and what we would reasonably describe as a ‘major tournament’, but it was reassuring to see what had previously been considered a ruthless, football match-winning team confirmed as fallible. These days, though, we all live in a world in which a jerk of the knee is an entirely natural reaction, so it hardly surprising to see some proclaiming the decline and fall of the Spanish empire on the basis of this loss, and who knows, this team’s performance last night had such a chaotic air about it that perhaps it has now reached and passed its peak as a unit. We will not, however, find out until next summer whether this loss has had anything like a debilitating effect on the swagger which has carried it through two European Championships and a World Cup over the preceding five years.
Outside the sanctity of the FIFA-approved stadia, meanwhile, something perhaps altogether more significant was going on. The world game’s governing body is very fond of reminding us of its apoliticism – which is very convenient for them most of the time – but over the last couple of weeks it has been drawn into one partly of its own creation. The charged state of disobedience within Brazilian society at present may well be beyond the control of world football’s governing body but the increasing opulence with which FIFA expects its major tournament certainly isn’t, and it might well be argued that, in what feels like a world that is more sharply financially divided than it has been for decades, protest at lavishing money upon the construction of lavish sports arenas in country with the social issues that Brazil faces – and has faced for decades – was inevitable. And with a World Cup finals to follow next year and an Olympic Games two years after that, this year’s Confederations Cup might well end up being a warm-up for greater protests outside these stadia to come. It would be encouraging to think that FIFA might learn a lesson from the last couple of weeks or so. Few expect that they will, though.
So, while the football may have reasonably entertaining, it is likely that it will be a strong political message for which the 2013 Confederations Cup will be best remembered. Questions such as that of Neymar might do when paired up with Lionel Messi at Barcelona next season – assuming, of course, that Messi isn’t hamstrung by having to wear a ball and chain next season over the tax case that he now seems likely to face – pale into insignificance in comparison with the broader issues raised by the disorder seen outside the stadia before, during and after matches at this tournament. It is possible that the celebrations that followed Brazil’s eventual win in the tournament will temper this anger in a country in which an obsession with the game remains one of its defining national characteristics. But then again, perhaps it won’t. Blatter, inevitably, today hailed the tournament “a success.” The distinctive smell of tear gas that drifted around and across the Maracana last night would suggest differently.
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