For some people, the end of the football season in years that end with odd numbers means a return to the real world. For two and a half months they become normal people, spending time with family and friends, allowing their sofas and their wallets to recover from the arduous few months that have just passed and giving every impression of being normal, well-rounded human beings. Others choose to prop themselves up with another sport, like tennis, cricket or rugby league. The rest of us, though, are suddenly rudderless. In years ending in even numbers, the end of the domestic football season means the beginning of getting excited about the World Cup or the European Championships (which is often better than the tournament itself). Those years ending in odd numbers, though… we spend the summer months staring blankly at “Big Brother” on the television or sitting in the pub wondering if it would be improper to try and instigate a conversation amongst your friends on the subject of just how much Roger Tames looked like Roger de Courcey (of “Nookie Bear” fame). This year, though, we have the Confederations Cup.
FIFA’s excuse for the Confederations Cup makes a degree of sense. It’s a warm up for next years World Cup finals – chance for the host nation to test out its media and transport infrastructure prior to the tournament starting. Whether they’ll have the time to change anything that goes drastically wrong is, of course, open to debate, and cynics might argue that this is a cynical cash-in to hold a mini-World Cup in a summer when there are no other major international sporting events taking place. A couple of years ago, we argued on this site that the space in the calendar held by the Confederations Cup would be a perfect space to hold a revised World Club Cup, but Sepp Blatter either doesn’t read this site or cynically chose to ignore my pleadings, so we have a fortnight of international football to look forward to instead. Perhaps surprisingly, all of the squads taking part will be more or less at full strength, so this year’s Confederations Cup should be worth watching.
Who’s In It, Then? The Confederations Cup is played between the six winners of the most recent FIFA competitions, the current World Cup holders and the host nation. The eight teams taking part are, therefore, Spain (winners of the 2008 European Championships), Brazil (winners of the 2007 Copa America), Iraq (winners of the 2007 AFC Nations Cup), Egypt (winners of the 2008 African Cup of Nations), the USA (winners of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup) and New Zealand (winners of the 2008 OFC Nations Cup), along with Italy (winners of the 2006 World Cup) and the host nation, South Africa.
Is It On The Television In The UK? Yes it is. The BBC are covering the tournament live, and every game will be streamed live on the BBC website. On the television, all matches will be shown live on BBC3 or by pressing the Red Button on your remote control. Kick-off times will be 1500 or 1900 BST. In the USA, all matches will be shown on ESPN.
What’s The History Of The Competition? The Confederations Cup was the brainchild of the late Prince Faisal ibn Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The first tournament was played in 1992, and the first three competitions were held in Saudi Arabia, before the competition was taken under FIFA’s wing in 1997. It used to be held every two years, but from now on will be held every four years in the year prior to the World Cup Finals. France and Brazil have both one the trophy twice, and Mexico, Denmark and Argentina have won it once each. In 2003, the tournament was marred by the death of Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foé as the result of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy during their semi-final match against Columbia.
What Are The Venues Like? Four of the venues for matches at next year’s World Cup finals are being used for the 2009 Confederations Cup. These are The Free State Stadium in Bloemfontain, The Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, The Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria and Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Two of these venues have sponsored names, but we won’t be using them here. Ellis Park was the venue for the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, but will only be hosting matches up to the quarter-final stages.
What Are The Kits Like? Funny you should ask that. We’ll have a quick run through of what we think they’ll be wearing. It’s a different shade of blue for Italy this summer, who have changed the shade of their shirts to match that worn by their 1934 and 1938 World Cup winning sides. Mussolinitastic. Spain have gone for a new look (no-one is certain whether their players will have the three stripes tattooed on their faces or not at this time) which looks a little like an ariel view of Mars after someone has built its first road. Someone at Nike has, in an increasingly more commonplace moment of clarity and common sense, decided that Brazil should keep the shirts plain, while The USA have gone for a very 1980s-esque red horizontal pin-striped look. South Africa have fallen foul of one of Adidas’s designers having had a bad day at the office (or perhaps having taken a mind-bending amount of hallucinogenic drugs), but Egypt have gone to the other extreme, following Puma’s template to the letter. Finally, Iraq have opted for a flag rather than a badge (always a good thing, that) and New Zealand wear all-white rather than all-black – it’s all very well seeking to distinguish yourself from the rugby team, but they’re surely missing a marketing trick there.
How Does The Tournament Work, Then, And Who’s Playing Who? It’s pretty simple, really. There are two groups of four teams, with the winners and runners-up making up the semi-finallists. As ever, the winners of the groups will play the runners-up of the other group in the semi-final matches. The two groups line up as follows – Group A: South Africa, Iraq, New Zealand and Spain. Group B: Brazil, Italy, Egypt, The USA. National security chiefs will no doubt have been relieved to see that Iraq and the USA have been kept apart in the group stages. Everything seems to point towards a Brazil vs Spain final, though it could just as easily be Brazil vs Italy. One of the most intriguing questions of the group stages is who will follow Spain (who must surely win their group comfortably) through to the semi-finals in Group A. South African football has been in something of a slough of despond for the last few years, and Iraq, having been narrowly edged out of the 2010 World Cup at the Third Round stage of the AFC qualifying tournament, will feel that they have a point to prove. In Group B, it would be a surprise if Brazil and Italy don’t both qualify, but the USA remain an enigmatic team which could be very good (as they were at the 2002 World Cup) or appalling (as they were at the 2006 World Cup).
Should I Care About It? Well, if you’re from one of the competing countries, then yes. Otherwise, “care” might be a bit of a strong word, but Italy, Brazil and Spain are likely to be amongst the favourites come the start of next summer’s tournament and this is as good a chance as any to take a good look at them playing under tournament conditions. The competing countries seem to be taking it seriously enough to take strong squads to it. If you watch Premier League teams in the League Cup or FA Cup, consider this: they’re taking it more seriously than many Premier League clubs take those competitions. If that argument doesn’t work, try this one? What else are you going to watch? The Ashes? Wimbledon? I mean, they’re great sports tournaments and all, but they’re not going to quite scratch the itch, are they?
And there we have it. the opening round of group matches is being played tomorrow, with South Africa taking on Iraq in the opening match of the tournament in the afternoon, followed by New Zealand taking on Spain in the evening. We’ll back with a round-up of both matches tomorrow.