The recent swathe of World Cup qualifiers has once again given everyone a taste of the joys of international football.
While the month of June will see many nations advance towards next summer’s global centrepiece (and many fall away) there are few better ways to get that fix of international football than by investing in the inevitable drama of the Confederations Cup.
In this article, I examine some of the key storylines and subplots likely to unfold and unveil themselves during the competition. With numerous stars on show, and the impending spectre of the World Cup cranking up the pressure on international coaches, expect drama and intrigue of the highest order.
One of the most remarkable things about Nigeria’s recent Cup of Nations victory was that the squad that won it was predominantly comprised of young stars and domestic-based talents.
Throughout 2012, coach Stephen Keshi dispensed with many of the high profile underachievers in the squad, and decided to place his faith on previously unheralded talents, hoping that a better team ethic would emerge. His decision proved to be a good one, and come the tournament the likes of Peter Odemwingie and Obafemi Martins were not missed.
However, since the triumphant episode down in South Africa, results have not been entirely convincing. A disagreement with skipper Joseph Yobo has further reduced the experienced personnel in the squad, and at times the naivety of youth has shown.
While the squad muddled through in the World Cup qualifiers against Kenya and the recent international friendly against Mexico, the post-Afcon period has not been navigated with the same swagger that one might have hoped. World Cup qualification still hangs in the balance, but the Confederations Cup will surely be a searching litmus test.
Will Keshi’s young guns rise to the occasion and demonstrate the same bravado they showed against Cote d’Ivoire in that crucial Afcon quarterfinal, or will it all come unstuck in the face of elite sporting sides such as Spain and Uruguay?
It is rare that a team so low in FIFA’s world rankings get a chance to showcase themselves at one of the organisation’s major tournaments. Tahiti currently sit in 135th spot, keeping company with the likes of Vietnam, Rwanda and Syria. To complete the set, Afghanistan are only three spots behind them.
It is not as if Tahiti have unearthed a marvellous new generation, misrepresented by the failings of the past. In Oceania’s qualifying for next year’s World Cup, they made it to the final third round, but managed to score only two goals, and win only one game, in a selection containing New Zealand, New Caledonia and the fearsome Solomon islands.
Nor are they a good team beset by a few weaknesses. Excluding a home victory against the Solomon Islands, their fixtures against the other two teams in the group produced an aggregate score of 12 against and 0 for.
It is not just that this lot are no-hopers in the heightened environment of the Confederations Cup, they aren’t even than impressive in the tame kindergarten of OFC.
They qualify for this summer’s centrepiece thanks to an unlikely victory in the 2012 Oceania Nations Cup, but will not expect this latest challenge to be remotely similar.
It will be interesting to see how Tahiti approach the near impossible propositions of games with Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria, but it may be even more interesting to see how the other three approach the presence of such a minnow—such as unlikely opposition—in the context of an international tournament proper.
It is fair to say that during the opening months of Felipe Scolari’s latest reign as Brazil boss, the results have been secondary to the performances and the personnel—at least in the mind of the Selecao’s new boss. He has cast the net wide and experimented with various different options, and now is the right time to settle on the formation, the approach and the cast to tackle the World Cup next summer.
Bearing that in mind though, the conspicuous absence of a victory weighs more with every passing game; friendlies against England (twice), Russia and Italy have been and gone, and yet Brazil have failed to secure victory.
The latest outing, against England at the redeveloped Maracana, ended in a 2-2 draw, particularly galling when one considers how Brazil had dominated the opening 45 minutes.
Scolari still has enormous backing among fans and Federation alike, but a continuing inability to secure victory will surely weigh against him moving forward.
The Confederations Cup surely must be the occasion when Scolari’s Brazil begin to turn the draws into triumphs, and show what they are truly capable of.
The world will be watching when the Selecao take on Japan on 15 June, don’t expect the knives to stay sheathed if Brazil fail to win that one.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s reign as Japan boss has been thoroughly successful thus far. Making the most of a talented crop of players, including the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, the Italian coach has already secured World Cup qualification—becoming the first nation (after hosts Brazil) to guarantee their place at next summer’s centrepiece.
Exciting performances over the last few years came on the back of the nation's triumph at the 2011 Asian Cup, where they showed grit and character to win some painfully close match-ups.
That victory guaranteed their place at this summer’s Confederations Cup, and here, the question will be whether Japan can translate the dominant form in their home continent to the wider global arena.
While their midfield and attack often enthrall, major question marks remain about the defence. Do not expect the likes of Brazil and Italy to ignore any failings, and I anticipate Japan, and their backline, will find themselves well and truly under the spotlight this summer.
Zaccheroni will surely be praying that his defence can hold firm and that the Blue Samurai can give a good account of themselves ahead of next summer’s World Cup.
Mexico boss Jose Manuel de la Torre has come under intense criticism for some of the decisions he’s made during his tenure as the national boss. Issues have ranged from his choices surrounding certain personnel, to some horribly sub-par performances during World Cup qualifying.
With such a large talent pool to choose from—including players plying their trade in Europe, as well as those playing in the Mexican top-flight—one of the strongest leagues in central, North, or South America, it is perhaps unforgivable that de la Torre has seemingly made so many blunders.
These range from the continued persistence to persevere with former Barcelona man Rafael Marquez to the misapplication of Giovani dos Santos in wide positions—the squad is seemingly crying out for a man of his creativity and his nous in a central role behind the striker.
In the Hexagon, CONCACAF’s qualification system, El Tri occupy top spot, but this gives a misleading account of their form. Yesterday they toiled to victory against Jamaica in Kingston, and prior to that had endured demoralising draws with the USA, Honduras and the Reggae Boyz, at home.
Their recent victory in the Caribbean will do wonders for their confidence, and will perhaps conjure the spirit of their 2012 Olympic triumph. Either way, there will be major pressure on the boss to enjoy a successful summer, to demonstrate Mexico’s worthy place at this animated stage and to revitalise their inevitable assault on next year’s World Cup.