This post is the latest in a series of posts designed to explain different parts of world/British soccer to casual sports fans (especially American sports fans). For the rest of the posts in this series, visit the For Casual Fans page.
On Saturday, June 17, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup begins. To a casual soccer fan, the selection of countries in this tournament might seem a bit random. Why are only those countries playing? What are they playing for? What does it all mean?
Let us answer those questions for you.
The Purpose of the Confederations Cup
The Confederations Cup takes place every four years -- always the year before each World Cup. It always takes place in the country that will host the following year's World Cup. In this way, it gives the World Cup's host country an opportunity for a practice run before the big tournament the following year.
Because of this, the tournament itself is smaller, and it carries much less value than the World Cup. Conversely, it is still a FIFA-sanctioned tournament on the world soccer stage, which provides it with some meaning. The countries participating will want to win.
The Participants in the Confederations Cup
The host country always gets to participate in the Confederations Cup. This time, that is, of course, Russia. The winner of the previous World Cup (in 2014, that was Germany) also gets an automatic entry. After that, it goes by qualifying zones.
Each of the 6 qualifying zones in world soccer have their own tournaments to determine who will represent them in the Confed Cup. Those 6 zones (and their representatives) are Africa (Cameroon), Asia (Australia), Europe (Portugal), CONCACAF (Mexico), Oceania (New Zealand), and South America (Chile).
The Format of the Confederations Cup
The countries have been drawn into two groups of four teams each. They will play a round-robin format familiar to anyone who has followed a World Cup. After the group stage, the top two teams in each group will advance to semifinal matches. The winners of those matches will meet in the final.
Group A consists of Russia, New Zealand, Portugal, and Mexico. This is an interesting group. Russia, as the hosts, could easily advance with that host nation bump we often see in international soccer tournaments. Portugal is one of those countries that sometimes shows up to tournaments and sometimes does not. Mexico is strong, and nothing much is expected from New Zealand. This should be a three-country battle for two spots.
Group B consists of Cameroon, Chile, Australia, and Germany. Cameroon and Australia boast decent teams, but it would be a shock if Chile and Germany do not advance from this group. Those two nations meet in their second group stage match on 6/22.
The Meaning in the Confederations Cup
Just as the tournament itself is good practice for the World Cup's host nation, the Confederations Cup gives its participants a chance to see how they fare against other World Cup-caliber competition in a competitive tournament. While the reality of this is downplayed by some, the tournament can give a head start to its participants roughly a year before the big one begins.
Just ask Jurgen Klinsmann. He desperately wanted to make this tournament, but the United States lost in its one-game playoff to Mexico last year. This is why Mexico is in the tournament instead.
The last time the United States played in this tournament was 2009. The Americans were drawn into the same group as Brazil and Italy and were given little chance to advance to the semifinals. On the final day of group play, the U.S. met Egypt and needed to win by at least 3 goals to advance. Sure enough, they did it, winning 3-0 to make the semifinals.
In the semifinal round, they met Spain. In a shocker, the U.S. won 2-0. They then met Brazil again in the final, losing 3-2 and earning second place in the tournament.
For some, the strongest memory of the entire tournament was seeing Clint Dempsey crying during the medal ceremony. The United States had come thisclose to winning a FIFA tournament. Who knows when that opportunity will come again?
Hopefully, the 2017 version will be just as good. But remember that this is only an appetizer for the World Cup to come in just one year's time.