Hey, look, the 2013 Confederations Cup kicks off Saturday in Brazil. It’s always hard to gauge how important the “dress rehearsal” for the World Cup is every four years. The 2009 version represented the best-ever showing by the U.S. at an international tournament, when it lost in the final to Brazil.
This year’s Confederations Cup does put together a solid grouping of eight national teams, including Spain, Brazil and Italy, who’ve won the last three World Cups. It should be a fun little two-week affair, even if the stakes aren’t all that high. (Your enjoyment level is likely diminished if you’re among the protesters in Brasilia Friday upset over costs to host the World Cup.)
Maybe the best aspect of the Confederations Cup is that all the games will be on ESPN, mostly in the middle of the day, which bodes well for the World Cup next summer. Ever since the 1994 World Cup, all successive tournaments have either taken place at awkward times in the morning (South Africa), midday (France/Germany) and the middle of the night (Japan/Korea). It took two decades, but we’ll have a World Cup in prime time for Americans.
For those who only pay attention to soccer during the summer for international tournaments, this is a good appetizer for the coming 365 days. Plus Ian Darke is involved, so how could it be bad?
Let’s take a quick glance at the four teams in Group A, which kicks off Saturday afternoon with Brazil hosting Japan (2:30, ESPN).
This is not your father’s Brazil. The team strength is in the defense with Thiago Silva and David Luiz. Playing in front of the home crowd is usually a boost for teams during tournaments, however it might end up being a burden for Brazil, who are still paranoid about losing the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay in Rio in front of 170,000+ fans. Brazilian fans expect the moon and stars, which this current team – even with the likes of Neymar – might be unable to produce. As hosts of the 2014 World Cup, Brazil didn’t need to go through qualification and haven’t played a competitive international match since the quarterfinals of the 2011 Copa America. On top of that, it has only won two of its last seven matches overall.
Like host Brazil, Japan has already booked a place in next summer’s World Cup. In many ways Japanese soccer is on the same footing as the United States with a relatively young domestic league and most of its star players (Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, etc.) plying their trade overseas. Japan is usually the strongest team in Asia, along with South Korea, but once it goes outside those waters, it tends to struggle. So, like the U.S. four years ago, expect Japan to treat the Confederations Cup with more urgency than some of the other participants. Japan is coached by an Italian, Alberto Zaccheroni, which could make it interesting when they meet in the second group game on June 19.
Italy at this point is Italy. The Azzurri aren’t as negative tactically as we’ve seen in the past thanks to coach Cesare Prandelli, but outside the antics of Mario Balotelli, they’re not the most exciting team in the world either. Italy shocked many by reaching the final of last summer’s Euro, losing to Spain. Will Andrea Pirlo have enough left in the tank this summer – and next – to keep the Azzurri relevant? The country’s performance thus far at the UEFA u-21 tournament in Israel this month seems promising. The Confederations Cup also represents the first opportunity for Stephan El Shaarawy to make an impact on the international stage.
Woe, Mexico. Chepo de la Torre’s squad comes to Brazil with dark clouds swirling above it. Since winning the gold medal in London last August, things have quickly gone pear-shaped for El Tri. This calendar year has been ugly, real ugly, as they’ve posted draws in eight of their nine matches, including five 0-0 results. A poor showing in Brazil and Mexico makes a coaching change. It might happen regardless. In Mexico, unlike the U.S., when the fans and media grumble about a coach, it’s not simply idle chatter isolated to the dark corners of the Internet. It’s national news. That said, Javier Hernandez, Andres Guardado and Gio Dos Santos could start clicking again, the goals could start flowing and it will all be forgotten. Or not.
Prediction: Brazil and Italy advance, while Mexico scores a goal (or two) but doesn’t.