BY GREG KITCHIN
These odds years are the worst, aren’t they? Years ending in 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9 are dreaded by football supporters everywhere. No predictable England collapse at a European Championships to bridge that gap till August. Neither is there the enticing nature of a World Cup group game between Japan and Cameroon to get you through the working day. Instead, from late May until early August, the only solace available to seek is the endless hours of trawling through hypothetical rumour mills and tutting at Liverpool’s new ghastly third kit. You begin to forget what the pros and cons of zonal marking are, and who even manages Watford these days. It all becomes a mystery as soon as mid-June strikes. You go on holiday and read a book; but then every four years on one of these odd summers, something happens. Football appears on TV, and tournament football at that. The Confederations Cup becomes the unlikely saviour of June and July, and in 2013 it delivered a feast.
The 2013 edition of the cup, as it always is, was a test run for the World Cup taking place in Brazil the following year. The hosts, Spain, Italy, Uruguay, Mexico, Nigeria, Japan and, erm, Tahiti travelled to six venues that the Canarinho’s had just about finished to offer up a refreshing festival of football. 68 goals in just 16 games – that’s just over four per, game for any budding mathematicians – provided the type of entertainment that international tournaments cannot always deliver. Who remembers that cagey Iran 0-0 Nigeria or the insipid England 0-0 Costa Rica from the 2014 World Cup? It might have been the Moroccan habit of not bothering with real measures in the Marrakesh hotel bar I enjoyed it from, but the Brazil Confederations Cup 2013 represented everything gratifying about the usually maligned international football.
This was the rebirth of Brazilian football. Neymar was their new spearhead, Thiago Silva gave them the solidity that often deserted them, and Luiz Gustavo did all of the dirty work. Dani Alves and Marcelo pillaged down the flanks whilst Oscar and Hulk floated about. Fred didn’t move unless there was a sight of goal, and even Tottenham’s Paulinho looked in good nick. To top it off, like every good international side, they had a Queens Park Rangers man between the sticks in Julio Cesar. The entire tournament was a light jog in the park; not even Spain were capable of forcing them into a sweat in the final. In a nation already plagued by protests against the hosting of several major sporting events whilst most lived in extreme poverty, Neymar and co. gave one big reason to get behind the boys in yellow (no, not Norwich); they were big favourites on their home patch a year later. Yes, we all know what happened when Germany came to town that fateful evening, but as Fred slammed home a third just after half time to give the hosts an unassailable lead against the all-conquering Spain, the dream was very much alive. The narrative was written. It’s the hope that always kills you.
The 2013 Confederations Cup was when the Spanish crown started to slip. Spain were the kings of international football as they flew to Brazil, winning the previous three major titles they had competed for and doing it in such a way that caused a re-evaluation of how football matches should and could be won. Tiki-taka was the buzzword whenever Spain played and it couldn’t be triumphed against – until the summer of 2013, when a blueprint was laid out for how to overcome it. Iniesta, Ramos et al looked imperious through the group stage, swatting aside Uruguay and Nigeria with relative ease. They then put 10 past Tahiti, Fernando Torres – post-Chelsea nightmare – scoring four and all but confirming the golden boot. It was after this that the wheels began coming off. Vicente Del Bosque maybe had an inkling that things weren’t quite right when they didn’t beat Italy 4-0 and had to rely on penalties. It was a bit more obvious when, in the final, Brazil swaggered past the lacklustre Spaniards in a pre-cursor for events that would unfold in the proceeding World Cup. The kings were partially dead, long live the new Brazilian kings.
Europe was further represented by an undoubtedly talented but arguably volatile Italian side. The Azzurri only ended up in Brazil on the account of Spain’s international dominance. They had been hammered 4-0 in the Euro 2012 Final by Del Bosque’s men, and seeing as Spain also had the World Cup in their possession, Italy got an invite for some more punishment. Thankfully, they avoided Spain until the semi-finals, when they did a little bit better than last time out holding the Spaniards to the tournament’s only 0-0 draw. Leonardo Bonucci was the only misser out of 14 takers, but redemption was just around the corners as the ressies beat Uruguay in another shoot-out. Italy decided to leave their reputation for being stout defensively back in Europe and the results were a lot of fun. A 2-1 squeeze past Mexico was just the start, as a 4-3 win over Japan and a 4-2 defeat against the hosts Brazil would’ve had many past Italian greats tutting, flicking their hair and turning back to their cappuccinos. It wasn’t as much fun when they were dumped up out the World Cup group stage 12 months later with a similarly carefree attitude – still beating England, mind you.
Nigeria were Africa’s sole representative and didn’t offer much. The Super Eagles aren’t so super anymore, unfortunately. They haven’t been for a while. Long gone are the days of Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and Taribo West. Instead it was John Obi Mikel and West Brom’s least favourite son, Brown Ideye. They began the tournament by sacking off any kind of organisation at set pieces and endeavouring to concede against Tahiti, but still grabbed six of their own. Relatively comfortable and expected defeats to Uruguay and Spain followed, as did a flight home for the 2013 AFCON Champions – a competition they haven’t qualified for since.
Suarez, Cavani, Forlan; woof. Uruguay were more top heavy than Joey Barton’s sense of self-worth, but this only added to the fun. They made particularly heavy weather of the group stage losing to Spain (no shame in that, I guess), letting John Obi Mikel score against them in a far from straightforward 2-1 win against Nigeria and scoring the obligatory eight versus Tahiti. They posed Brazil their toughest test in the tournament in the semi-final but still succumbed late on to a Paulinho winner. Italy nicked the bronze medal from them, but it would be Uruguay that would have the last laugh as they would knock them out of the World Cup proper a year later.
Japan were the hipsters’ choice. A stylish brand of football combined with a preference to attack rather than defend led the 2011 Asia Cup winners to be the neutrals choice. With the likes of Keisuke Honda and the two Shinji’s (a double act on Japanese TV, I can imagine) of Okazaki and Kagawa, they possessed the flair capable of making inroads in the tournament. Subsequently, they lost every game, although a late 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Azzurri provided one of the games of the tournament. A similarly disappointing World Cup followed a year later, disappointing bearded men drinking craft beer everywhere.
Mexico seem to be in every international tournament. World Cup, Olympics, Gold Cup, Copa America, probably Eurovision; they play a lot of competition football. They are always present; Javier Hernandez usually grabs himself three goals and then the big boys take over. It probably won’t surprise you that they have been knocked out in the Round of 16 in six successive World Cups. Hard done by against Italy, outclassed by Brazil, and too good for Japan; as you would expect really. In a tournament consisting of eight teams, at least they avoided that dreaded Round of 16.
Tahiti arrived at the tournament as the surprise 2011 OFC Nations Cup winners, becoming the first side that weren’t Australia or New Zealand to hold the Pacific title. They were also ranked 138th in the FIFA rankings, below the footballing powerhouse of Burundi; in short, it was unlikely they would be creating any other history. With a population similar to that of Colchester, being invited was, in itself, a triumph. Sparing you the FA Cup-esque ‘the centre back is a postman’ clichés, the Polynesian amateurs captured the hearts of the Brazilian support and, despite the record -23 goal difference, they became the story of the tournament. Their solitary goal, a 54th minute back-post header by Jonathan Tehau against Nigeria, was celebrated by players, staff and spectators alike as though it was a last gasp winner in the World Cup Final. They lost that fixture 6-1 but won by just taking to the field. Further heavy defeats, including a 10-0 reverse at the hands of an almost full-strength Spain in a packed Maracana, did not dampen the spirit irradiating from the most populous island of French Polynesia.
Looking back, it is difficult to remember a football-less summer that made such an impact. It prompted the hopeful rebirth of Brazilian football, the beginning of the end for Spain and introduced Tahiti to the international stage for a fleeting week or two. The rumour mills and kit analysis were put on hold for three weeks and were substituted by free-flowing, fearless football provided by eight international sides that all played a role. Russia 2017 may not have the same romance attached to it as a Brazilian tournament does, but there is hope that those painful summer weeks might be filled with some equally ground-breaking moments.