By The Rex Factor
Eight countries gathered in Russia for a two-week tournament exactly one year before the largest nation on earth will host the 2018 World Cup.
The Confederations Cup has been held in the host country of the World Cup as a dry run one year beforehand since the 2001 Confederations Cup was in South Korea. There have been some intriguing games, including through the first two rounds of this year's event, but by and large, the event has been unexciting.
It could also be on the way to extinction – at least until the USA, Mexico and Canada all potentially host the 2026 World Cup, should they win the three-way bid, as expected.
Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup during the winter months, which has forced the domestic league and cup fixtures throughout Europe and the world to re-schedule. The tournament has regularly been a summer-time event in the northern hemisphere. To be fair, South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014 both did admirable jobs hosting the event in the southern hemisphere in June, which is a winter month for both. But to ask those leagues to change their schedules for two straight years when the Confederations Cup is just an eight-country “mini tournament” would be unfeasible.
So we're left to enjoy what's happening in Russia now, and worry about the future later. With club seasons not starting until late August in Europe, these games will matter more than any others this summer, even if it's only to get a feel for the strength of the current continental champions from Africa (Cameroon), Oceania (New Zealand), South America (Chile), Europe (Portugal), Asia (Australia – don't ask), and North America (Mexico). Germany also qualified as World Cup champs and Russia is the host country, rounding out the field.
Sure, the Gold Cup starts in the United States in a couple of weeks. That will be interesting if only to see how Bruce Arena coaches his team in tournament play for the first time in his second stint as manager of the USA. But Mexico and Costa Rica are the only true threats to win the tournament outside of the Americans. And there were World Cup qualifiers earlier this month in CONCACAF, but nothing else is coming until after the European seasons begin.
Seven of the eight teams are still eligible to advance to the semifinals next week when the last round of group play kicks off Saturday. The two games will each kick off at 11 a.m. Eastern in group A, as Mexico battles Russia and Portugal meets New Zealand. The hosts are sitting on three points and will need to beat Mexico. Portugal and Mexico are each sitting on four points and the Portuguese just need to get a draw to advance to the semis, as New Zealand have already lost twice and will be going home.
On Sunday, Group B games start at the same time and all four teams are alive after a pair of draws on Thursday. But Germany and Chile are sitting on four points each and are in the driver's seat. Cameroon and Australia will both have to chase wins. Cameroon will need to beat Germany by three goals to progress, while Australia will need to beat Chile by at least two goals. Expect the underdogs to be aggressive from the opening kick, or shortly thereafter. That makes for exciting soccer.
The semifinals will be Wednesday and Thursday, with the third-place and final on July 2. Gold Cup play will keep the die-hard fans busy, and the transfer season is not far away from hitting high gear. But for the hard-core European fans who will be eager to see games starting again in August, it's break time.
But the Confederations Cup games are certainly worth watching at this point. We might not see them for eight more years, if ever again.