An average of 3.5 goals per game and several matches contested right to the finish have more than made up for disappointing attendance at the twelve first-round matches of the FIFA / Confederations’ Cup in Riyadh.
Despite a furious rhythm of three games in five days in the Saudi Arabian capital, the eight teams in the tournament of continental champions continued to produce entertaining and pulsating football. Things have not gone altogether to form : apart from World Champions Brazil, none of the three other France 98 finalists have made it to the last four. Instead, outsiders Australia, the rejuvenated Uruguay and the Czech Republic (representing Europe in place of Germany, who declined the invitation) made the semi-finals instead of World Cup contenders Mexico, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
Elimination was a bitter blow for the home team, whose bosses had already reacted by replacing German coach Otto Pfister by the 1994 World Champion Carlos Alberto Parreira, who quits his job with the New York Metros to take up the challenge in Riyadh. A 1-0 win over Australia restored some home pride, but earlier defeats (0-3 to Brazil in the opening game and a 0-5 humiliation by a Mexico side deprived of at least half a dozen of its regulars) had shown the Saudis’ limitations. Australia’s moment of glory came not so much in their 3-1 opening win against Mexico but in the achievement of holding Brazil, clearly a cut above all others, to a goalless draw.
The Czechs produced some of the best and the worst football so far, following South Africa to catch them and then succumbing to the Uruguayans before producing a sparkling display to annihilate the hapless United Arab Emirates, 6-1. That was only one of two seven-goal affairs on the final evening of group matches, Uruguay – containing half the under-20 team that won silver in last July’s FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia -- preserving a 100% record with a last-minute winner against the crowd’s favourites from South Africa.
South African coach Clive Barker reacted to the defeat with the euphoria of victory, claiming "We’ve shown we can play the kind of football to make us serious contenders in France." Inadequate defending cost Bafana Bafana dear, a shortcoming only made up by extraordinary spirit and surging late rallies that tended to mask the deficiencies of what had gone before.
So Friday’s semi-finals will pit Brazil against the Czechs and Uruguay against Australia. Mario Zagallo has tried every possible combination so far of his three strikers, Ronaldo, Romario and Bebeto, with the Ronaldo-Romario partnership blatantly the most effective. But Ronaldo, said to be suffering from a shoulder injury which may be more diplomatic than real, looks set to miss the semi-final, while Bebeto has looked a shadow of his former self. Denilson behind the attackers and the looming Junior Baiano in midfield, together with the inevitable Roberto Carlos, have produced the most convincing consistency so far.
The man for Brazil to watch will be Vladimir Smicer. A hat-trick against the UAE brought his tally to five in three games and put the Racing Lens (France) striker ahead of the pack of goalscorers in a tournament not short of goals. Dusan Uhrin’s side seems to have recovered some of the class that won it silver at EURO 96, and absence from France 98 will at least make the Czechs a sought-after sparring partner for lucrative warm-up games between now and June.
For Australia, Terry Venables has performed a minor miracle to lift his players from the despair of the Iran play-offs to a place in the semi-finals. Despite a lingering dispute over pay, the side of footballing journeymen has succeeded in doing what Venables had cajoled them into : proving that they would have deserved their place in France.
If the intensive schedule has not yet taken a visible toll on the players, the fans have not been able to keep the pace. Attendance have fluctuated between 40,000 and 2,500, with Brazil the main attraction. But those who have trekked out to the magnificent King Fahd Stadium on the edge of the city have liked what they’ve seen, with teams repeatedly dispensing with defensive caution in the search for goals.
With goals and victories comes money, too : a bonus of 1.5 million dollars awaits the Champions in Sunday’s Final. Right now, there are three teams trying to stop Brazil picking up the cheque.