Let’s talk about that looming Oct. 10 date, the one of such super-duper importance in our part of the soccer world. And then let’s hack away at some conventional wisdom that needs taming – a false narrative has spilled out, and it needs cleaning up.
The match is United States versus Mexico inside Pasadena’s historic Rose Bowl. Preliminary rosters came out Monday, so things are starting to bubble already. We know the match will generate tremendous interest. These are bitter border rivals, and for the good, sweet, clean U.S. soccer supporter, any chance for another bite off the juicy dos a cero apple is mouthwatering stuff.
We also know about the spoils, the Confederations Cup berth at stake. A victory certainly gives U.S. fans something to anticipate in 2017, 12 months before a Russian World Cup.
But it’s that weighty competitive advantage of mere Confeds Cup participation that really stands out, right? Because ticket punchers reap huge rewards just for showing up, right? Ah, the ability dip toes into local waters in 2017, an early round of Russian inspection before stuff gets real at World Cup 2018.
Yes, the edge is massive for teams that can visit and play in a competitive (ahem) tournament a year before the big show, right? Coaches, players and officials gain tremendously from checking out the scene a year early. Presumably, they are carefully identifying the best places to bunk and train, testing the local water for mineral count, taking temperatures of stadium soil and sourcing local farms for grass fed beef.
Coaches tell us all the time that “the game is about players.” But, c’mon! We know better. Identifying the optimum bus route into the stadium a year out … that’s got to be worth at least one goal, right?
Yes, we know the Confederations Cup is critical stuff. We know so because … well … because the teams trying to get there tell us so!
Only, it’s not so. A growing sample of evidence simply doesn’t support the claim.
Again, I would personally love to see the United States go to the Confederations Cup. Simply put, it will make the summer of 2017 a lot more interesting. For any nation, given the choice of going or not going, I’m pretty sure most would stand up and proclaim, “Yeah, we’re in!”
But as a card-carrying journalist, I am duty bound to knock down any false narratives that break loose. And here we seem to have one. In providing an actual advantage to the Confederations Cup participating teams, there is scant evidence that demonstrates any real boost for the more significant events of 12 months hence.
Jurgen Klinsmann can say it all he wants, banging on about the tremendous advantage that Mexico had in 2013, buzzing into Brazil for a competitive tournament a year early, but him saying it doesn’t make it so. The Fox network started promoting this Oct. 10 showdown and talking up its bigger picture implication weeks ago, but clearly they have an interest in ginning up the significance. You know, ratings and all.
But the notion that Confederations Cup is some super fuel that drastically improves engine performance during a World Cup is just wishful conjecture, presumption and conventional wisdom gone wrong. The Confederations Cup’s usage as an eight-team dry run for the ensuring World Cup, one year out, began in 2001. Brazil did indeed grace the Confeds Cup field in 2001, and did indeed win the whole shebang one summer later. But it’s Brazil, which has won four other World Cups, so for theorem proof, that one has limited value.
You know who else got an early preview of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan? France – and how did that work out for Les Bleus? Their historic flop (no wins, two losses and a scoreless draw) was among the memorably infamous tales of World Cup 2002.
Other 2001 Confeds Cup visitors, the ones who came back a year later? Cameroon went 1-1-1 and didn’t get out of group play in 2002. Mexico lost to the United States in the Round of 16. Of course, Mexico always loses in the Round of 16, so that doesn’t prove much either.
Brazil not only qualified for the 2005 Confederations Cup in Germany, but that Ronaldinho-led team won the darn thing. So, big edge for the 2006 World Cup, right? Well, I’m pretty sure that falling to France in the quarterfinals in Berlin probably isn’t any Brazilian fan’s notion of “raging success.”
Tunisia and Japan were Confeds Cup participants in 2005. Both came and went quickly in the 2006 World Cup without so much as a first-round win. Australia is one team you might circle as a team that did gain some advantage from tire kicking the grounds a year out. Maybe. They escaped group play in 2006 and then gave Italy a handful in a Round-of-16 loss.
Mexico was a Confeds Cup 2005 participant. The next year? Yep, the fell in the Round of 16. Mexico always loses in the Round of 16.
More of the same in 2009 during the dry run for South Africa. Neither Italy nor New Zealand (both participants of the 2009 Confeds Cup) could propel themselves past the first round a year later. No big shock for New Zealand, of course. But Italy? Yikes.
The United States did quite well in 2009; upsetting mighty Spain was a signature win of the Bob Bradley era. But a year later, we were all saying “opportunity lost” when something that looked like a fortuitous path into later rounds was squandered in an underwhelming afternoon against Ghana.
Spain, of course, claimed the 2010 World Cup crown a year after visiting for the Confeds Cup. And you are certainly free to make the argument that getting acquainted with the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, or whatever, was instrumental in Spanish success. I would argue it was more about Xavi, Andres Iniesta and others in that fabulously talented group of serial winners, surely among the best national team we’ll ever witness.
Mexico claimed CONCACAF’s Confederation Cup berth for Brazil 2013. You can hoot and holler all you want about Arjen Robben’s embellishment in Mexico’s loss to the Netherlands. But either way, Mexico lost in the Round of 16. Mexico always loses in the Round of 16.
And Spain? Well, my heavens, that early inspection visit of 2013 certainly didn’t help La Furia Roja at Brazil 2014, now did it? That aging generation could have lived in Brazil for the previous year and still not have overturned a sad, miserable flameout.
Italy, just like four years early, went to the Confeds Cup and then went into the World Cup toilet. Once again, the Azzurri didn’t escape first-round play at Brazil 2014.
We can turn all this around, too. Generally speaking, the tournament surprise teams do not come from the list of eight who punch their Confeds Cup tickets. Colombia and Costa Rica were the little teams that could in 2014, and neither had the advantage of a Confeds Cup head start. Similarly, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands did just fine last year in Brazil, all qualifying for the semifinals, at least. None were in the previous summer’s Confederations Cup.
One more time: Of course, it would be nice to be in the Confederations Cup. And it surely cannot hurt to be in the Confeds Cup.
Intuitively, it seems like there would be some kind of advantage gained. But we can learn a lot from those hard-working number crunchers from the Freakonomics franchise, who keep showing us through books and podcasts and lots of data mining that sometimes the numbers overturn conventional wisdom.
It’s OK if you want your team to beat Mexico on Oct. 10 (or, if you want your team to beat the United States.) But this notion that a Confederations Cup appearance works any better than a couple of selective friendlies inside the host country (or even just staying home to train) just doesn’t hold water.
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