It’s that quadrennial time when the Confederations Cup looms in our minds if not our hearts; the mini pre-World Cup tournament that’s long been an answer to a question no-one asked.
Time flies when you’re having fun and although it would be hard to ever describe the Confederations Cup as this, almost two decades has now passed since its inception. With that 20th anniversary looming, what better time to take a look back at the very first FIFA-sanctioned tournament that was hosted in Saudi Arabia over a nine-day period in December 1997.
Saudi Arabia were granted hosting privileges in recognition of the King Fahd Cup the country had staged in 1992 and 1995, tournaments that were retrospectively recognised as official Confederations Cups. And the Saudis would put on a well-organised tournament that lacked for nothing apart from watching spectators who were conspicuously thin on the ground.
The organising committee resorted to raffling cars and gold watches in half-time draws to encourage people to attend the matches, with even the fixtures featuring the home nation struggling for numbers.
Then, as now the Confederations Cup was a eight-nation tournament featuring – in principle – the champions of the six continents, plus the World Cup holders and the hosts. Unlike now, the tournament was played in mid-season much to the chagrin of the major European clubs unhappy at releasing players.
For this reason Germany was conspicuous by its absence and Europe was represented instead by the 1996 Nations Cup runners-up the Czech Republic, joining fellow participants Australia, Mexico, the UAE, Uruguay, South Africa, the hosts and Brazil. It was something of an oddity that in a tournament seen as a curtain-raiser for the forthcoming World Cup, only half of its participants had managed to qualify for the tournament in France itself.
There was little doubt that Brazil were hot-favourites to win, especially with Mario Zagallo choosing to send a full-strength squad that features big-hitters like Ronaldo, Romario, Leonardo, Bebeto, Juninho and Dunga – though curiously it was the up-and-coming youngsters like Rivaldo, Denilson (voted Player of the Tournament) and keeper Dida who shone.
The favourites made a disjointed start to their campaign, however, with a flattering 3-0 win over the hosts, the goals only arriving when Saudi Arabia were reduced to ten men. A scoreless draw followed against a defensively well-organised Australia side with keeper Mark Bosnich in sparkling form.
Brazil’s final group game came against a Mexico side needing a point to qualify alongside their opponents. A Romario penalty just before half-time opened up the game and Brazil eventually triumphed 3-2 meaning Australia snared the other qualification place.
United Arab Emirates were the whipping boys of a Group B in which Uruguay and the Czech Republic advanced as expected. The best game of the entire tournament came with South Africa needing to beat Uruguay by six clear goals to advance, only to lose a thriller 4-3 with a last-minute winner from the teenager Christian Callejas.
For their semi-final encounter the Czechs adopted a positive approach against Brazil which pleased Mario Zagallo who had been complaining long and hard about the defensive play on show. Denison was the standout player again and instrumental in setting up the goals for Romario and a first of the tournament for Ronaldo.
Australia shocked Uruguay in the other semi-final with much-vaunted forwards Alvaro Recoba and Marcelo Zalayeta being kept well in check by the mean Australian defence. Harry Kewell scored a golden goal winner after 92 mins following an error by Uruguay keeper Claudio Flores and the same ‘keeper made another mistake to cost his side the bronze medal against the Czech Republic.
Australian coach Terry Venables had performed a sterling job in extracting the best from his modest squad, but a second encounter with Brazil in the final proved a game too far. Ronaldo put the South Americans ahead after 15 minutes and the game looked over nine minutes later when Aussie forward Mark Viduka was sent-off.
Brazil ultimately won 6-0 with hat-tricks for both Ronaldo and Romario leaving both as the tournament’s joint top scorers with five goals – a respectable return considering the pair looked lethargic and disinterested for the duration of the competition.
Lethargic and disinterested also summed up international reaction to a tournament short on quality, if fairly well-served in drama and excitement. Two decades later it’s still going, perhaps not quite strong, but going at least which is more than most would be predicted. The Confederations Cup has over time carved out its place on the football calendar and its upgrade within the broader football community from dislike to tolerance is a major victory in itself.