The Confederations Cup: an odd tournament now consigned to history

The Confederations Cup: an odd tournament now consigned to history

We all forget about things. For you, it might be leaving the key in the door. For football’s governing bodies, it might be the physical and mental welfare of its players. For me, it’s the Confederations Cup.

Next year is World Cup year – and if it’s already World Cup year when you’re reading this, where have you been? – and that can only mean one thing. Except this year, it doesn’t. The decision not to hold a Confederations Cup in 2021 was not made out of the kindness of FIFA’s heart to reduce players’ workload after a relentless 18 months in COVID-era football. It was a decision made before places like Wuhan and Barnard Castle became household names.

In 2019, FIFA consigned the Confederations Cup to history, replacing it with an expanded 24-team Club World Cup, which would take place the summer (winter for you southern hemispherers) before a World Cup. Or in Qatar’s case, the summer before the summer before a World Cup. Of course, a 24-team Club World Cup – which was cancelled in 2021 to make way for Euro 2020, the Copa America and whatnot – was not what most of us might have been asking for. And no, it wasn’t Arsene Wenger’s idea.

All this leaves the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, which was not a particularly memorable affair but for the rather tedious introduction of VAR onto the quote-unquote world stage, as the last edition of a tournament that began 25 years earlier.

Saudi Arabia were the first hosts. And the second. And the third. For the first couple of editions, the competition wasn’t under the jurisdiction of FIFA at all, instead conjured up as the King Fahd Cup in honour of the occupant of Saudi Arabia’s throne at the time. His royal highness was kind enough to invite South American champions Argentina, North American champions USA and African champions Ivory Coast to compete alongside his own country. Newly crowned European champions Denmark did not take part in the October games of 1992. Oceania’s title-winners didn’t compete until 1997.

Argentina were, surprise, surprise, the first winners of the tournament, daring to beat Saudi Arabia 3-1 in the final at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, with a goal from Diego Simeone sealing the victory. Gabriel Batistuta also started up front and Fernando Redondo was named player of the tournament. At least 70,000 people attended the matches involving Saudi Arabia. The other two games attracted crowds of 15,000 or less in the same stadium.

The King Fahd Cup was not such a resounding success at home when it was next held three years later. This time, it was a January event and this time the crowds did not flock to the King Fahd Stadium. Matches involving Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Japan, Saudi Arabia and, finally, Denmark, were played in front of decent attendances but nowhere near the capacity ones seen in the first edition.

By 1997, FIFA had seen enough from the sidelines. They rather liked King Fahd’s idea of gathering the globe’s reigning champions all in one place. The concept of the continents’ best colliding was first brought about at the top level in 1985, when UEFA and CONMEBOL pitted their respective champions against each other in honour of former UEFA president Artemio Franchi, who was killed in a car accident two years prior. Michel Platini captained France to victory over Uruguay at the Parc des Princes before Diego Maradona’s Argentina beat Denmark in the second and final edition in Mar del Plata in 1993.

After FIFA’s takeover, the Confederations Cup, as it was renamed, continued on a biennial basis, its profile boosted by the appearances of international football’s biggest nations, namely Brazil. Their collection of stars – Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Romario, Rivaldo, Bebeto, Denlison, Dida and Cafu all turned out at least one Confed Cup – providing a sturdier platform for the tournament to perch on, although it had its detractors.

In 1997, Saudi Arabia played host to the third edition – the first under FIFA’s rule – which was held in the depths of December. Germany, who earned an invite for their exploits at Euro 1996, snubbed the chance to participate because the tournament fell during the Bundesliga’s winter break. The Czech Republic flew the European flag in their place.

Two years later, Erich Ribbeck did scramble a squad together to go to Mexico for the Confed Cup’s first summer showing, but their 4-0 and 2-0 defeats to Brazil and the USA respectively partly highlighted Germany’s half-arsed attitude toward the tournament and partly foreshadowed their drab campaign at Euro 2000.

The whole concept of the major-tournament dress rehearsal was initially launched in 2001, as South Korea and Japan put their teams and, perhaps more importantly, their stadiums to the test ahead of hosting the World Cup the following summer. The presence of the two Asian nations left no room for poor Saudi Arabia, who were forced to watch their own competition from the comfort of their settees for the first time.

Both co-hosts gave good accounts of themselves and attendances were good, but a fair bit of squabbling between the two nations – recent history naturally urging them to compete against each other rather than work together – slightly overshadowed matters, as did the notorious black clouds during monsoon season. Japan’s home support did at least propel them as far as the final, where they were felled by Patrick Vieira’s winning goal for France in front of 65,000 in Yokohama.

There are big crowds, though, and then there are big crowds. The Estadio Azteca was besieged by 110,000 for the final of the 1999 Confed Cup, where Mexico edged a 4-3 thriller against Brazil, Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s fourth ultimately the difference. CONCACAF’s representatives have often had a knack of upsetting the odds, or at least giving Europe and South America a run for their money.

The 2009 Confederations Cup, staged in South Africa to a now-familiar chorus of vuvuzelas, saw the United States send European champions Spain packing in the semi-finals. In the final against Brazil, they took a two-goal lead, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan’s strikes threatening to land the States’ first major international honour away from their own shores. Luis Fabiano inspired a comeback, though, and Lucio’s late header sealed Brazil’s third Confed crown.

While the Confederations Cup offered moments of great joy, anticipation and discovery, there were incidents on the opposite of that scale, none more so than the death of Marc-Vivienne Foe, who did not survive after suffering a cardiac arrest during the semi-final of the 2003 edition in France. The midfielder, who had just completed a season-long loan at Manchester City and was on the books at Lyon, collapsed in the 72nd minute of Cameroon’s meeting with Colombia at the Stade Gerland.

The game was finished, with Cameroon running out 1-0 winners, before the severity of the situation dawned. “When the match ended, it was the euphoria of qualifying for the final … but the physical trainer tells us that Marco had a problem,” Cameroon’s Lucien Mettomo, who roomed with Foe that summer, later recalled to Radio Sport Info.

Cameroon and opponents France almost didn’t contest the final, held in Paris three days later, but they were convinced to take to the field by Foe’s wife, Marie Louise. After Thierry Henry’s golden goal in extra time, Marcel Desailly and Rigobert Song lifted the trophy together, while a runners-up medal was hung on a picture of Foe.

After 2003, the Confederations Cup was held every four years, rather than two. Germany, whose previous reluctance to compete was rendered pretty useless in the face of hosting the World Cup in 2006, took on the 2005 edition, where world champions Brazil and Copa America runners-up Argentina did battle in the Berlin final, with Adriano, Kaka and Ronaldinho netting in 4-1 humbling of La Albiceleste.

It’s fair to say Brazil will miss the Confederations Cup. They won it more than anyone else, clinching a fourth and final title in 2013, when it was their turn to get into the grove for their summer/winter in the sun. That Confed Cup was the scene of Neymar’s arrival to a global audience, who had been deprived of mainstream access to this prodigy during his formative years with Santos. The real stars of Brazil 2013, though, were Tahiti.

The 2012 OFC Nations Cup winners, who saw off New Zealand’s semi-final slayers, New Caledonia, in the final, were thrust into a group with Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria in Brazil. Their squad, composed entirely of players who plied their trade in Tahiti’s own domestic game, apart from Nancy’s 33-year-old Tahitian-born striker, Marama Vahirua, who switched allegiances from France to lend a hand.

In the opening game against Nigeria in Belo Horizonte, they were 3-0 down at halftime and looking every part the amateurish team they were. But the sheer euphoria that erupted throughout that Tahitian team and the stadium when Jonathan Tehau headed in Vahirua’s corner should be bottled and sold at an astronomical price. The entire team converged on Tehau, one of three brothers in the squad, and they performed a choreographed rowing celebration that may have been the peak of my football-watching life to date.

It wasn’t easy, though, sitting through their 10-0 and 8-0 hammerings by Spain and Uruguay respectively. But Tahiti’s was a dream fulfilled, for sure. If a 48-team World Cup means we get more teams and stories like theirs, maybe it’s worth putting up with – just not every two years, please.

Russia, as I mentioned, had the honour of staging the final Confederations Cup. Julian Draxler was named player of the tournament, Claudio Bravo the best goalkeeper and Timo Werner awarded the golden boot. That should say it all about that spectacle, one which maybe football’s saturated schedule could certainly do without more of. At least we saw VAR take its first steps, though.

“I didn’t understand it and I still don’t understand it now,” pined Cameroon boss Hugo Broos after Sebastian Siani’s yellow card was upgraded to a red after a VAR review in their group game against Germany. The referee was then told to go back to the pitchside monitor to look at the incident for a second time. He came away realising that it was in fact Siani’s teammate, Ernest Mabouka, who had committed the foul and the red card came out again. Awkward.

But yeah, that’s a little tour of the Confederations Cup/King Fahd Cup for you. They say you only appreciate something good when it’s taken away from you. Not sure that applies here but, y’know, thanks for the memories but it’s time to say goodbye to that funny little football tournament. Not sure we needed another competition in Qatar anyway.

By Billy Munday

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