The FIFA Confederations Cup, the most recent addition to FIFA's list of tournaments, will return in 1999 to a country and two stadiums that have already seen a lot of football history in the making. Mexico will host the eight teams involved in the competition, and matches will be played in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City and in the Jalisco Stadium in Guadalajara.
Azteca and Jalisco - two names that awaken stirring memories for those who have followed football over the years. When polls are carried out to determine which match people consider the most memorable of all time, then the vote usually goes to the semi-final thriller between Italy and Germany on 17 June 1970, which the Italians won 4:3 after extra time. This was certainly one of the classic games that have been played in the Azteca Stadium in the Mexican capital, which had only been built four years earlier. It has a capacity of 115,000, and no fewer than 19 World Cup matches were played there in 1970 and 1986. Among them was also the game in 1986 in which Maradona's two now-legendary goals against England went down in history (for different reasons). There were also other great matches, such as the final of the World Youth Championship in 1983. For the 1999 Confederations Cup there will be an interesting link between the past and the present. Back in 1986 the recently crowned World Champions and the team they deposed played each other in the Jalisco Stadium in a quarter-final match, which the French under Michel Platini won against a Brazil team that included Zico, Socrates, Careca, etc., but only narrowly, via a penalty shoot-out.
And we are likely to see excellent football again. If not, it will be a big surprise, in view of the quality of the teams taking part:
- Defending champions Brazil, who won the Copa America in 1997 and were runners-up in the World Cup
- The host country Mexico, who won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 1998
- World Champions France, designated by UEFA instead of the reigning European champions
- Saudi Arabia, Asian champions 1996
- Egypt, winners of the African Nations' Cup 1998
- USA, representing CONCACAF, as losers in the Gold Cup final 1998
- Bolivia, representing CONMEBOL as losing finalist in the Copa America 1997
- New Zealand, sensational winners of the Oceania Nations' Cup thanks to a victory over their arch-rivals Australia.
The Confederations Cup was first designated a FIFA competition in December 1997, when it was held in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Previously, there had been two other tournaments in Riyadh in 1992 and 1995 under the title "Inter-Continental Championships."
In 1992 the winners were Argentina, then reigning South American champions. They came with a star-studded team including Batistuta, Redondo, Caniggia and Simeone and carried off the trophy, beating the host country, who had tremendous support from the home fans, into second place. The other two teams taking part on that occasion were the USA and Côte d'Ivoire. For the 1995 competition six teams took part, and this time it was Denmark who took the honours, with strong performances from the Laudrup brothers earning them victory over Argentina. Mexico and Nigeria made it to the semi-finals, while Japan and the host country were eliminated after losing both of their group games.
Although the competition came under the FIFA umbrella in 1997, the venue remained the same. This time eight teams were invited to Saudi Arabia. With World Champions Brazil and the host country being automatically invited, there was room for another Asian team, in this case UAE. The organisational format was easy this time: eight teams, two groups, semi-finals, finals. The tournament lasted just ten days - perhaps a record short time in view of the number of matches - and in the end it was the pre-tournament favourites Brazil who won the final in the King Fahd stadium. Their opponents in this match were Australia, who had held the South Americans to a goalless draw in their group encounter. But the final was far from a repeat of that result, with Romario and Ronaldo scoring three each, and no reply from the Socceroos.
Even though the competition has now been transferred to another continent, the concept has remained almost the same. Back in 1997 it had been decided to offer an automatic invitation to the title-holder and not to the World Cup winners. But with UEFA nominating France to take part, an interesting line-up has been guaranteed anyway; both World Cup finalists will be there, four reigning continental champions - five if we include Brazil - and, in the shape of the USA and Bolivia, two ambitious countries who want to re-establish themselves in view of recent results (which could be an important consideration in view of the performances of Australia and Uruguay in a similar position last time round). With home advantage behind them, the host country should also not be overlooked. They have a long-standing unbeaten record in the Azteca stadium and will be difficult opponents for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bolivia, who are drawn against them in the same group.
World Cup revenge - perhaps in the final, or earlier? The answer to this question could come in what looks like an intriguing opening match - a repeat of the World Cup final between France and Brazil, with New Zealand and the USA looking to have a hard time ahead of them in this group.
After nearly twenty years in the wilderness, New Zealand have staged a comeback at exactly the right time. In 1982 they qualified for the World Cup for the first and so far only time in their history. Now they have a chance to perform in a major competition again - an opportunity to do some PR work for the FIFA U-17 World Championship which they will host in November.
With the high quality of the teams taking part, this competition will enable teams to battle for prestige at intercontinental or regional level - Egypt versus Saudi Arabia for example - and offer a unique opportunity for coaches to test out new ideas and players in a series of games against top level opposition, since apart from the Copa America there is no other continental championship taking place in 1999. These two weeks in Mexico promise varied and interesting matches, with a lot of the world's established top players on view, and others trying to break into that elite group.