Confederations Cup 2013: Stage 1

Tom Bodell looks back at the footballing highlights of an unexpectedly exciting first stage of the Confederations Cup 2013 played against a backdrop of an uprising in Brazil.

The Confederations Cup. It’s hardly a tournament to set the pulses racing; it rarely produces the kind of must-see matches that you plan to sit down and watch in advance and yet I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed and international tournament so much.

I’m not so much for international football. I enjoy the World Cup and the European Championships when they come round, but those tournaments comprise one month every two years. Uninspiring qualifying matches between England and Moldova or an equally tedious friendly between England and the Republic of Ireland are games that I watch out of patriotic necessity – give me a game I have no vested interest in any day of the week.

To that end, this year’s Confederations Cup has been a pleasant surprise. A feast of football with some genuinely attention-grabbing fixtures played out in a manner befitting of their headline. Even games in which only one of the sides featuring would normally stand out to the neutral have brought excellent – albeit it late-night – viewing.

Turning the spotlight on hosts Brazil, the tournament has been somewhat uplifting for the Selecao. Expected to win the World Cup in their own backyard next summer, this is the first set of competitive fixtures that Luiz Felipe Scolari has been able to take advantage of in his preparation for next summer’s festival of football.

Shorn of qualifying games as hosts, it’s been a series of disappointing friendly performances and results for Brazil, but if nothing else, the Confederations Cup has proven that Brazil are capable of turning in some performances when required. They are nowhere near the level required to rival bona fide challengers such as Spain or Germany next summer, but they have at least taken tentative steps in the right direction.

In particular, the performances of Neymar have been something to admire. I’ve been sceptical of the 21 year-old, who will go into next summer’s tournament with the benefit of just the solitary season in European football behind him. But, on this tournament’s showing, the Barcelona-bound frontman has shown the maturity required to perform in a tournament environment with the hopes of a passionate soccer nation riding on his spindly back. Throw into the mix stunning goals against each of Brazil’s Group A opponents, the former Sao Paulo man has shown exactly why Barcelona are prepared to chuck nearly £50m at the most prodigious talent in South America.

Group A enjoyed some the tournament’s best games with Italy and Japan putting on quite a show in the Azzurri’s 4-3 victory a week ago. That game saw free agent Keisuke Honda put in another excellent display in the Japanese midfield and if the former CSKA Moscow midfielder had a handful of offers for next season prior to the tournament kicking off, you can bet his agent has fielded several phonecalls since.

In conceding thrice against Japan – including a couple of absolutely howling defensive errors – and four against Brazil in their final group match, Italy have gone a long way towards proving the lazy stereotype about Italian defences completely redundant. Gianluigi Buffon’s performance against Brazil was nowhere near the level we have come to expect of the goalkeeper who has defined a generation of ‘keepers, but to suggest the 35 year-old is past his best, or even on the wane, is jumping the gun.

In Group B we have seen Spain at their irresistible best – particular in the 3-0 destruction of Nigeria – and Vincente Del Bosque’s men will rightly be considered the favourites for not only their semi-final tussle with Italy, but the tournament outright. The 10-0 thumping of Tahiti was the Spaniard’s stand-out result, but the victory over Stephen Keshi’s enthusiastic Nigerian side was all the more impressive.

Nigeria created a number of excellent chances of their own and Victor Valdes – deputising for Iker Casillas – cannot have been expecting to be in for such an intense 90 minutes between the Spanish sticks. With a little more guile and killer instinct in front of goal, Keshi’s side could undoubtedly have troubled Valdes’ net, though Spain themselves lacked the same instinctiveness in front of goal on a handful of occasions too. Valencia man Roberto Soldado particularly guilty of wasting a couple of chances.

There have been goals a-plenty for the much-maligned Fernando Torres too – five in all – and despite the fact four of those came against minnows Tahiti, Torres showed the clinical streak that Spain had missed in the opening hour when he came on to add the second. Jordi Alba is another to have excelled; a brace against the Super Eagles adding further credence to the idea that the Barcelona ‘defender’ is in fact the most gung-ho full-back in world football right now.

There ought to be a word too for the BBC, who have blooded former Republic of Ireland midfielder Kevin Kilbane at the tournament as a co-commentator for the first time. It has to be said that the former Everton and Sunderland man has been a breath of fresh air as a summariser so far and a welcome change from the tired, lazy, misinformed and frankly amateurish efforts of Marks Lawrenson and Bright.

Equally, the Beeb’s coup of having sacked Brighton & Hove Albion boss Gus Poyet in the studio as the news of his removal as Seagull’s boss was quite something and a personal highlight of an excellent tournament. The whole incident was more fortuitous than Poyet implied when he suggested that the broadcaster was good for breaking stories, but nonetheless it provided a memorable moment of a different kind.

With two cracking semi-final matches in prospect, the tournament goes from strength to strength.

Tom Bodell

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