The Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, became a place of football pilgrimage for a couple of weeks in early December as those seeking the truth of pre-World Cup form made the effort to assess the status of the World Champions and a trio of challengers. And the trip was certainly worthwhile.
If there were any doubters about Brazil's resolve to add yet another title to their already unique achievement of four World Cup wins, they will have abandoned their scepticism in Riyadh. In five matches in the King Fahd Stadium during a successful campaign for the FIFA/ Confederations' Cup, the Brazilians found their true form.
Not surprising, therefore, that coach Mario Zagallo could hardly contain his delight at the end of a 6-0 thrashing of Australia in the Final on 21 December. "I've found my World Cup team," he told the international press. "For me, this was like the first match of France 98."
Whether Scotland, Brazil's opening match opponents in the Stade de France on 10 June, will prove any sterner opposition than the teams Brazil encountered in Riyadh, remains to be seen. But it is unlikely that the Scots, Norway or Morocco will present substantially greater problems in Group A than Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the Czech Republic and Australia did on Brazil's way to the Confederations' Cup title.
After two editions of the Intercontinental Cup in the same stadium, with teams competing for the King Fahd Trophy, FIFA took over the reins for this newly revamped tournament, bringing together the continental champions of the six confederations (apart from Europe, represented by the EURO 96 runners-up from the Czech Republic in place of Germany). The host nation was qualified automatically as such but also as Asian champions, and so Asia was also represented by the Asian Cup finalists from the United Arab Emirates, while Brazil had earned their ticket as World Champions (and had also won the 1997 Copa America in the meantime).
There was no disputing the quality of the teams on show, therefore. The tournament had been preceded by a tug-of-war over the release of various players from the European club commitments, resolved by a compromise which aimed to satisfy the demands of both club and country — although this is an issue to which FIFA and the world football community will have to return with urgency. Part of the solution also lay in the agreement to allow squads to call upon an extra couple of players, although the starting line-up for each of the 16 matches remained at eleven players and nine substitutes.
With all the matches in one stadium, which admittedly had a wearing effect on the turf and earned the groundsmen in the magnificent King Fahd Stadium extra compliments for the manner in which the field just about managed to present a fine playing surface after no less than 16 matches in nine days, and all teams in one hotel (apart from the Saudi Arabians who used their customary training camp in the city), the organisation of the tournament was a model of simplicity.
The rhythm of matches was as much as the teams could withstand, however : the four finalist teams played a total of five matches each within ten days, for most players in the middle of a busy season, and it is to the credit of the players (and of their team physiotherapists) that they remained so fresh through to the end. In any case, it was very useful practice for the rigours of tournament schedules ahead.
If the tournament had one disappointment, it was the level of interest shown by the Saudi public. The counter-attraction of live television coverage may be widely responsible for their absence, together perhaps with the distance of the stadium from the city, as well as the unfortunate timing for local schools and colleges, as it coincided with exam times.
Whatever the reason(s), the attractive opening match just failed to fill the stadium, despite the pairing being the most attractive of all for the local fans : Saudi Arabia versus Brazil, with the local side managing to hold the South Americans to a stalemate until the last half-hour, when a goal from Cesar Sampaio and then two from Romario in the closing minutes finally got past the excellent goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Deayea.
Australia started as they meant to go on : faced with a largely experimental Mexican side under new coach Manuel Lapuente, the Aussies set out to make up for the disappointment of their traumatic World Cup elimination by Iran. Memories of that experience were evoked as Terry Venables's side led 2-0 with 20 minutes to go, when Luis Hernandez scored with a penalty ... only for Damien Mori to restore the gap in the last minute.
That bolstered the Aussies' confidence and they went into their next match against Brazil with no inhibitions, and the closest the World Champions came to rattling Mark Bosnich's goal was from two thundering free-kicks by Roberto Carlos. Mexico, meanwhile, recovered from their bad start by inflicting an embarrassing 5-0 defeat on the home side, whose defence collapsed towards the end.
But the Saudis bounced back in their third match, which was also to be the last under coach Otto Pfister, Mohammed Al-Khilaiwi's goal being enough to separate the two teams, even though a Mark Viduka header hit the bar in stoppage time. Brazil were pressured by Mexico at times, but Jesus Ramirez's free-kick goal came too late to prevent the Brazilians winning 3-2. South African referee Ian MacLeod had the misfortune to collide with a Mexican player just before half-time and sat out the second half, suffering from double vision.
In Group B, Uruguay fielded a team largely composed of players from the side that had won silver in last July's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship. Coach Victor Púa, in charge in Malaysia too, put his trust in his protégés and it paid off with three wins in their three group matches, starting with a comfortable 2-0 dismissal of the UAE. South Africa should have beaten the Czechs, despite being twice a goal behind; Helman Mkhalele equalised with four minutes to go then missed the simplest of open goals in the dying seconds.
The South Africans rallied again in the second game, but could not pull back the goal by which Hassan Mubarak gave the Emirates their only win of the tournament. Young star Nicolas Olivera scored again for Uruguay as they beat the Czechs 2-1, the Europeans having Karel Poborsky receiving the only direct red card of the 16 matches, after 40 minutes.
The third day in Group B produced a feast of goals : 14 of them in two matches. First, the Czechs completely overran the UAE, leading 4-0 at half-time and with Vladimir Smicer getting three. The Uruguay-South Africa game was a much tighter affair, with the Africans needing a hatful of goals to qualify for the semi-finals. Captain Lucas Radebe put them ahead but Uruguay took a 3-1 lead, only for South Africa to stage their customary fight-back and level the scores ... and for Christian Callejas to get the Uruguayans the winner in the 92nd minute. The crowd rose to the South Africans, who celebrated their stirring performance as if they had won. It was to be the last game in charge for coach Clive Barker, but he went out in style.
The semi-finals produced matches hardly worthy of the occasion. Mario Zagallo was on his feet in the first half of the game against the Czechs, urging his tired team into more action, and Romario and Ronaldo obliged in the second half. At least Zagallo was pleased with his tactics. "We aimed to cut out the Czechs' two danger men, Smicer and Nedved," he said later. "We succeeded in doing that, which made things much easier for us. It proves the tactical sense of my team."
Australia and Uruguay struggled to raise the pace in their semi-final, and it took a dramatic golden goal by Harry Kewell two minutes into extra time to break the deadlock. "We did everything but score," bemoaned Victor Púa after the game.
And so to the finals. Third place matches seldom raise passions and this was hardly different, with Czech substitute Edvard Lasota scoring the decisive goal five minutes after coming on as a second-half substitute. Another coach took his bow in this game : the Czechs' popular Dusan Uhrin, quitting after 48 matches in order to coach in nearby Dubai.
If the Australians thought Brazil would offer no more resistance in the Final than they had in the goalless first round encounter, they were badly mistaken. The striking duo of Ronaldo and Romario proved unstoppable, with three goals apiece, and Player of the Year Ronaldo putting on his best display of a tournament that had not always gone his way.
"We unpicked the lock of the game with a golden key," is how Zagallo put it after the game. Terry Venables was less poetic. "Mark Viduka being sent off after 24 minutes was the turning point, " he claimed. "It was only 1-0 then. Brazil are a terrific team, but I've seen them play better."
The 65,000 fans in the King Fahd Stadium for the final were happy enough with what they saw. The World Champions, their attack prompted once again by the brilliant Denilson who was rewarded by his nomination as the best player of the tournament, put on a display of attacking football that sent a warning around the world.
3.3 goals per game
It was a highly satisfactory climax to a tournament that produced plenty of goals, at an average of 3.3 a game, and some interesting pointers for the future. As for the future of the tournament itself, FIFA will await the detailed analysis of the tournament in Riyadh before deciding what rhythm it should take. Finding a suitable place in the overburdened international calendar will be the greatest problem to face.
No doubt a future edition will need to give players somewhat more rest time between matches, too, as well as spreading the games out in more than one venue. These are all lessons to be learnt from a tournament which left the eight teams richer not only from the 8.375 million Dollars prize money shared between them...