Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The World Cup you have when you’re not having a World Cup

    So the Confederations Cup is getting underway in Germany. Of course you can follow all the action at which will have previews, predictions, results, statistics and insightful commentary from some of our sport’s best Internet columnists.

    I know you’re just buzzing with anticipation. Who will win? Brazil? Argentina? Germany? Could Australia or Tunisia shock the world? You just can’t sleep while you’re contemplating it all.

    In fact … you probably can. Perhaps you’re sleeping better than ever because you think the Confederations Cup is one giant yawn. [Oh, and by the way, I hope you didn’t fall for my gag by trying to find the website in the opening paragraph.]

    In theory, the Confederations Cup is more élite than the FIFA World Cup – only eight teams and most had to win a continental championship to get there. In practice, it’s barely a half-serious tournament.

    Can you name the winners of the previous six tournaments? I can’t believe I’m about to admit this but I actually had to look one up! Yet all these tournaments have occurred in the last decade and a half. If, however, you ask me who won the 1930 World Cup (43 years before I was born), I wouldn’t just give you the answer, I’d give you a brief match report as well. There’s a good chance that you could too.

    In past columns, I have paid some (often tongue-in-cheek) respect to the Confederations Cup but that’s partly because I’m an Australian who is desperate to talk up anything that my country might have achieved on the football pitch. There is certainly some pride in the fact that the Socceroos were runners-up in 1997 and third in 2001 (with wins over France and Brazil). But if that doesn’t impress you out there in the rest of the world, rest assured that I wouldn’t have to conduct a survey to find that 99.9% of all Australian football fans would have traded those efforts for qualification for the World Cup finals. Yeah, we know what matters most.

    Indeed, the Confederations Cup presents a no-win outcome for the Aussies. If we flop, it’s just confirmation that we’re no good. If we perform brilliantly then it’s a case of “it’s only the Confederations…”, a sentiment that would be compounded if the Socceroos again fail to qualify for the big party in a year’s time.

    In 1997, Australia’s effort in reaching the Final came just weeks after the heartbreaking World Cup qualifier debacle against Iran. Sure, we were pleased when Harry Kewell scored a golden goal winner in the semi-final (against Uruguay) but it wasn’t exactly break-out-the-champagne time. Aussie football fans were a bit too numb for that. (Hey I’m getting good at saying football instead of soccer!) And if we celebrated hard after defeating France and Brazil in the 2001 edition, it only turned to tears a few months later when we lost the decisive World Cup qualifier – in Uruguay.

    FIFA elegantly showed how “no-win” the Confederations Cup can be after the most recent tournament in 2003. New Zealand had qualified as the Oceania champions but the Kiwis struggled and returned home with a goal difference of -10. Soon, FIFA withdrew the automatic qualifying spot for the World Cup finals that it had awarded Oceania only months earlier and one of the reasons/excuses given was that New Zealand’s Confederations Cup effort showed that a guaranteed place for Oceania wasn’t merited.

    Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that the qualification place would have remained intact if the Kiwis had done well but it just goes to show that you can get little credit for your successes and plenty of criticism for your shortcomings at the Confederations Cup. Needless to say, that’s a reality for most of the teams in Germany at the moment.

    The history of the Confederations Cup is something comparable to the history of aviation before the Wright brothers. And one wonders if it will ever really get off the ground. Apathy has been a constant and that apathy remains the key contributor to the competition’s lack of success.

    Germany, host of this year’s tournament, “qualified” for the last edition in 2003 as World Cup runner-up but decided not to compete. The Germans also decided against playing in 1997 when they were champions of Europe. France, winner of the 2001 and 2003 Confederations Cups, opted out of the 1999 tournament, a year after winning the World Cup.

    Even FIFA – which now uses the Confederations Cup as part of its attempt to unceasingly raise revenue – was slow to get on board. Its website suggests that there have been six previous tournaments. The truth is that the first two editions (1992 and 1995) weren’t driven by the sport’s governing body. Most of the early initiative came from Saudi Arabia (which hosted the competition in 1992, ’95 and ’97). The 1997 tournament was the first to be labelled the “FIFA Confederations Cup”. FIFA’s website pays only tacit recognition to the concept’s history: The King Fahd Cup, as the tournament was originally called….

    The 1997 tournament was the first to adopt the eight team format in which the eight teams are: the six champions from each confederation; the World Cup champion; and the tournament host. Extra places have opened up if teams qualified in two different ways (e.g. Saudi Arabia hosted the ’97 tournament and was champion of Asia, so United Arab Emirates, runners-up in the Asian Nations Cup, “replaced” Saudi Arabia as the Asian representative).

    A long-running farce regarding the proposed date of the 1999 tournament led to FIFA fixing subsequent tournaments at the close of the European season (i.e. June). But the tournament’s credibility remains low.

    The main problem the Confederations Cup has is TMF – Too Much Football. It’s one of the contributing factors to the Ronaldo saga of recent weeks. The Golden Boot winner from Korea/Japan wanted a break and opted out of the tournament despite pressure from coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. Now, whatever you think of Ronaldo’s position on the issue, there’s no escaping the fact that any Brazilian international playing club football in Europe would have been eligible for the World Cup finals, in between regular seasons, in 2002, the Confederations in 2003, the Copa America in 2004, the Confederations again this year and the World Cup finals again next year. Meanwhile, the regular season is packed with domestic and European matches and several trips back home for CONMEBOL’s ridiculous World Cup qualifying schedule. TMF?

    Even Australia’s coach, Frank Farina, didn’t kick up a fuss about the fact that two important midfielders, Marco Bresciano and Vince Grella, were retained by Italian club Parma so they could compete in relegation playoffs. When you consider that Farina’s position is under pressure, you might expect that he’d fight for those players’ availability. Why didn’t he? Because he knows that he’s really going to want them for World Cup qualifiers. No point having a fight about it now and running the risk of club versus country rows later this year. It’s only the Confederations Cup…

    That’s not to say that Farina and the Socceroos won’t want to do well at this tournament. But the problem is that the Confederations means different things to different people. Countries like Australia, Tunisia and Japan will want to try and prove that they can compete with the cream of international football. On the other hand, I’d be surprised if Brazil and Argentina (who are both “resting” players) regard the competition as a litmus test. The World Cup is international football’s Holy Grail and no one will be “rested” for that.

    Germany might actually be the most interesting team to follow over the next couple of weeks, mainly because the team has, by its lofty standards, struggled for nearly a decade. Forget the surprise visit to the Korea/Japan Final, the Germans’ woes at Euro 2000 and 2004 more accurately reflect where they’re at. With 12 months of Friendlies before they host the World Cup Finals, this tournament should be a useful hit out for them.

    But it would take something special to make the Confederations Cup a truly coveted trophy, something that would show fans that it really means a lot to all the teams and players. If managed properly, it could really be the World Cup you have when you’re not having a World Cup. It’s debatable whether or not it deserves that status now.

    TMF dents the Confederations Cup’s credibility. A good solution would be to hold it once every four years instead of once every two. Now, I know that some confederations hold a nations’ championship every two years but, if they had two different champions in a four year cycle, the issue could be settled with a simple play-off. (Better still, force every confederation to hold its nations’ championship once every four years!)

    It’s more wishful thinking on my behalf because until a Confederations Cup loses a lot of money, nothing is going to change. Quality continues to give way to quantity.

    Naturally I’ll still be kicking every ball with the Socceroos over the next couple of weeks. I’ll wake up at ridiculous hours, up my caffeine consumption and sit glued to the television set as the pictures are beamed from Germany. But if I could be given the choice between Confederations Cup success and qualification for the World Cup finals, which do you think I’d chose?



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